Leadership and Long-term Perspective
Type the word “leadership” into a Google search and you will get over 400 million returns. Overwhelming! This article is about just one component of leadership— long-term perspective.
Most people will agree that the primary responsibility of a leader is to lead, and in order to lead, you must know where you and your organization are going. Not just to the next quarter, but over the next ten years or more.
The term “long- term perspective” implies a viewpoint and an understanding of the future that you expect to achieve, either personally or for your organization. People who think about where their organization is headed and specifically what it will achieve over the next ten years or more are often called “visionaries” because they have a vision or image in their mind of where they are going and what they must achieve to get there. Not everyone in a leadership position has that.
When I was a child, we played a game called “Follow the Leader.” One child would be selected to be the leader, and the rest of the group would follow. Many “leaders” didn’t know what to do, and just ran around in circles until the group chose another leader. Some leaders simply did what the previous leader had done. Then, occasionally, a new leader would take all of us on an interesting journey around the playground or field or park— wherever we happened to be. Those occasional leaders, young as they were, knew where they were going. They had a destination.
Futurists and strategic planners talk a lot about “vision” or “visioning.” Sometimes they speak in almost mystical terms, but there is nothing mysterious about visioning. A vision is your (or your organization’s) image of the future, usually at least ten years away. If “image” is no more helpful to you than “vision,” think of both as a destination in the future. The place you want your organization or your life to be ten years from now.
When I talk to audiences or workshops about vision, I offer an analogy, suggesting that if you were to plan a family vacation for next summer, the most important decision would be your destination. Where will you go? Until you settle on a destination, you really cannot make plans for your vacation. Once you decide on the destination, then you can decide how you will travel (car, ship, airplane, etc), where you will stay, and what you will do. But you really can’t plan a vacation until you decide on a destination.
The same is true of business and strategic planning. You cannot make an effective strategic plan until you have a vision —a destination in the future. Which brings me back to my main point: Good leadership requires the ability to know where you are going, to have a destination in the future —a vision. Others agree.
Kouzes and Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge (2002) conducted considerable research on leadership, stating that “More than 70% of our most recent respondents selected the ability to look ahead as one of their most sought-after leadership traits.”(italics are mine). In the same paragraph, the authors add “…leaders must know where they‘re going if they expect others to willingly join them on the journey.” (p 28).
But this raises the question, “How does an individual acquire a long term perspective?”
I suggest that you start by learning about, understanding, and thinking about the future. To understand the long-term future, it’s helpful to start with the concepts that futurists rely on.
First, the future is not predetermined. That suggests that more than one future is possible, which is the basis for the theory of alternative futures. If the future is not predetermined then there are possibilities of multiple futures or alternative futures. Some of those futures will be better or worse than others. You may be able to choose!
Second, the future cannot be known. Yet, it is possible to make educated guesses about the future. We can guess, with reasonable accuracy, what is the best future or worst future in specific areas.
Third, the future can be influenced by the actions of groups or individuals. Very important, futurists recognize that actions we take in the present will affect the future.
Think about that third concept for a moment. If you make an airline reservation for next week, you have changed your future. If you agree to meet a friend for dinner this evening you have changed your future. We usually take these small, short-term changes in the future for granted, but if we can change the short-term future, why not change the long-term future? Futurists believe that we can. Actually, this is the theory that underlies strategic planning; the ability to take actions over a period of time that will change (or create) the long-term future. This is where and why you design a vision, a vision of the future you want to be living or working in ten or more years from now, for yourself, your business, or an organization.
In short, you can change the future. Short term or long term. To do so, you will have to think about the future and make decisions about what you want the future to be. Keep in mind that going into the future will not happen in a straight line toward your destination, but will be more like sailing a small boat and tacking back and forth across the wind. The important thing is that you have a destination toward which you are always moving. That is the start of developing a long-term perspective.
In future articles we’ll explore the future, visions, strategies, and long-term thinking in more detail.