When to Turn Back (Hint: Before You Plummet Over a Cliff)

“What does that sign say?”

I could hear the tension in my mother’s voice as she peered through the windshield of our tiny car at the large road sign, written in Spanish and framed by a fringe of icicles that glittered in the sun.

“It says we’re supposed to have chains on the tires if we’re going any farther up the mountain,” said my uncle. “But don’t worry about it, it doesn’t mean anything.” He pressed the accelerator and the car moved slowly forward, tires crunching in the snow.

I was ten years old. I sat with knees touching the back of the passenger seat, trying not to bump my mother and make her even more annoyed than she clearly was already. I was wearing the red-and-black poncho we’d bought at an outdoor market in Frijiliana, the village where my Uncle Michael lived. My mother and I were visiting him for a few weeks over Spring break.

Frijiliana is on the southern coast of Spain. It had been warm there, but it was unseasonably cold toward the center of the country, where we were that day. Uncle Michael was taking us on a car trip to the interior, where he wanted us to see, among other things, a famous mountain peak that offered spectacular views. I don’t remember the name of the place, but I remember the grownups exclaiming over the snow that still blanketed the ground in early May.

“Are you sure?” my mother asked. She gripped the dashboard as the car skidded a bit.

“Oh yes, yes, it’s no problem at all,” said Uncle Michael. “Anyway, we’ve already paid to go up. We shouldn’t turn back now.”

The snow was maybe four inches deep on the twisty, narrow road. There were no guard rails. There were no other cars. I remember thinking, “Mummy doesn’t like this.”

We drove for about fifteen minutes up and around several switchbacks before the car came to a stop, tires spinning in a hump of snow.

“We should go back,” said my mother.

“No, come on, everyone out, it just needs a little push,” said Uncle Michael.

We got out. He walked around to the back and pushed. My mother stood with me in the middle of the road.

He stopped, puffing cloudy breaths. “Well, we can just wait for a bit. Someone will be along soon to give us a push, and then we can keep going. In the meantime, let’s take a picture! Look at this view!”

He herded us over to the edge of the road, a 200-foot drop behind us, and snapped the picture, which remains in my mother’s photo album today: it shows an unsmiling woman in sunglasses and navy-blue trench coat and an unsmiling girl in red-and-black poncho, standing in front of a truly spectacular view.

Directly after the taking of the snapshot, things began to happen. I remember the car suddenly sliding gently backward, my uncle running after it, feet skittering on the snow, putting his hands on the side door in a vain attempt to arrest the slide, my mother saying “Jesus,” the car moving faster, faster, heading for the edge, then slowing, then coming to a stop about six feet from the cliff.

I don’t remember what my mother said next. Whatever it was, Uncle Michael was absolutely quiet and compliant from then on. He got into the car, started it, and turned it around. Then my mother and I got in, and we all drove very slowly down the mountain, past the You Must Have Chains on Your Tires sign, and back to our hotel.

*****

Much advice for leaders and entrepreneurs today boils down to “Persevere.” Success lies, they say, in forging ahead no matter what. I quite like that advice; in fact, one of my favorite sayings is “Perseverance and audacity generally win” (a quote from Dorothee DeLuzy, a French actress of the eighteenth century).

But let’s be honest: sometimes, turning back is the right thing to do. Many of my regrets in my career are connected to times I pressed onward when turning back would have been wiser (see my July 24 post on “No-Regrets Leadership”).

Some say we can only perceive this kind of mistake with hindsight. As I think about that mountain road in Spain, however, I’d say the universe typically gives us plenty of warning—I mean big, fat signs—when we’re headed down (or up) an inadvisable path. Unfortunately, we can be so caught up in our vision of success that, like Uncle Michael, we fail to pay attention.

Here are three signals that you ought to turn back:

  • You’re alone. Except for your direct reports, who have no choice in the matter, nobody is coming along on your exciting mission. When you ask people for support, or to come to your meetings, they’re too busy. When you want to talk about it, they’re not interested.
  • Your team is visibly unhappy. The people with you (the ones without a choice) don’t say much. They seem tense, maybe even anxious. When they do speak up, you don’t like what they have to say, so you talk over them and tell them to keep going.
  • You’re advised about danger ahead. It’s actually quite rare for someone to warn a colleague about political minefields. (Most people don’t want to put themselves at risk, so they stay silent.) That’s why a colleague’s warning, even if it’s just a mild hint or expression of concern, should always be treated as a giant, flashing red light.

The higher you go and the more compelling your vision, the more you should be alert for these signs. For no matter how spectacular the view, trust me: you won’t appreciate it as you’re plummeting over a cliff.

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About Jocelyn R Davis

Jocelyn Davis is Principal of Seven Learning, a leadership development firm that creates a lasting lift in leaders' effectiveness using classic books, films, and stories.
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