The first time I saw Kung Fu Panda, my expectations were quite low. I mean, a panda that does kung fu? A jackrabbit I could buy… but a panda? Then again I’m a huge Jack Black fan. The biggest and most pleasant surprise though was Master Oogway the turtle (or is it tortoise? I always get those confused). His wisdom was entertaining and enlightening. The best part is, it’s also applicable to everyday leadership and life.
There’s a scene where Oogway is dropping some knowledge (as a kung fu master is wont to do). The dude is pretty deep for a turtle. He states “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”
I stopped slurping on my white raspberry slushy and thought for a moment “wow, the turtle has a point.” The implications of Oogway’s statement reverberated throughout the cosmos with a thunderous clap. The dude was talking about how we move through life and, more importantly, how we can show up as leaders. Sure, right now you’re thinking that slushy gave me a brain freeze and that’s why this whole turtle/kung fu/leadership notion is so confusing so allow me to explain.As leaders, we sometimes tend to focus on where an individual on our team has been. The errors they’ve made or the successes they’ve had come to sum up their existence and worth to the organization. Their past defines them. Some rest on these laurels and ultimately their performance declines. Others are cursed by one or two past mistakes and they are written off despite the potential they might have for future greatness (see the Buying Damaged Goods post for more thoughts on this point).
Oogway correctly points out that all those events are history. They are written and can no longer have an impact on the future. By placing disproportionate emphasis and importance on those events, a leader is living in the past and may miss opportunities to positively impact the future.
The second trap leaders can fall into is looking to the future for new challenges or development opportunities for their people. It’s fun to focus on promotions, new roles, new projects, and new challenges. We can dream of big things for our people and obsess about ways to get them those chances to grow. On the downside, we spend hours thinking about those uncomfortable progress reviews where we’re going to have to deliver bad news. We fret over the difficult conversations we know we’re going to have with an individual who isn’t performing well.
Of course, Oogway is right again in that the future is an unknown. The person may up and quit tomorrow. Or their performance might change dramatically. Or they might come to you and say “I know I’m not doing well and here’s what I want to change.” Oogway’s point is we simply don’t know how those things will pan out and exerting energy on trying to divine those outcomes is not the best use of our ergs.
All we have is today. What is going on with your people RIGHT NOW? How are they performing in this moment? What are their CURRENT concerns and issues? How can you help them succeed at what they’re working on TODAY?
Oogway is simply saying we can learn from the past (but don’t obsess over it or let it affect the future) and we can’t do anything about the future other than affecting what’s happening today. Live in the moment. Lead today. Tomorrow will follow. If you as a leader can get involved with your team on a daily basis and focus solely on the outcomes of those daily interactions, the cumulative effect of such efforts will deliver a bright future and will write a history you can be proud of.
Who knew animated turtles could be so smart?