Leading into an Uncertain Future

What Future? . . .

It was a dinner table conversation – you know, you’ve been there many times, right? My guests, who are deeply involved with administrating social welfare programs with a special emphasis on abused and disadvantaged children, are always intrigued by the world of business and its different perspectives.

I’d been explaining some current pressures and trends that have emerged in business leadership. I related, in detail, how recent economic disruptions have altered the perspectives of business leaders to the point that many senior people feel disquieted and even disrupted – they feel that little or nothing is the same as it used to be.

At one point I mentioned that several CEOs of my acquaintance were demonstrably nervous about their leadership role since the future was becoming less and less predictable. "They need to live in the future,” I explained, "but work in the present”.

"I can’t see how that’s possible!” responded Mary, "and even if it is, what useful purpose would that serve?’ She went on to describe how she views herself as the equivalent of a corporate president, making direct comparisons between the number of people managed, the size of budget, the significance of outcomes and the impact on society. Her concern, she stated firmly, was to master the present.

I fell into the trap, offering my opinion that she was perhaps the equivalent of a COO or general manager but that the CEO role in her field had been usurped by the policy makers and planners. She allowed that her focus was on the present, dealing with current issues mainly, but still could not identify with the role of working from the future as being particularly different from her periodic planning efforts in social service.

Now, comparisons are odious, as they say, and I shouldn’t have pursued this line. I was committed though and felt compelled to try to find parallel roles in non-business settings. I may not have been totally successful but it did challenge me to reflect on the ‘live-in-the-future . . .” concept which is so compelling in the business world. May I share some of this thinking with you?

Living in the future . . .

As an executive coach, I’ve often counselled senior executives to position their viewpoint six, nine or twelve months into the future. One rationale for this is to encourage anticipation and constructive intentionality in their thinking; another is to help them to break the limitations of "probability / possibility” type thinking and to venture into "potentiality” thought patterns – more on this later.

I’ve always realized that such repositioning is not intuitive for many, if not most, but those who do succeed will tell me that the shift in perspective had a profound and beneficial impact on the quality of their leadership. It creates a significantly different set of assumptions, a paradigm, which changes focus, interpretation, decision making, weightings and concerns. It also has a profound effect on behaviours and particularly on responses.

We know that leadership and management are different tools in an executive’s tool bag and that it’s important, if not essential, to apply each with careful consideration. Leadership addresses issues of WHAT needs to be done while management is more focused on HOW it gets done.

This means that while management is a convergent activity – bringing all available resources together to achieve a known outcome – leadership is by its nature divergent – taking bold steps into the future where no man has gone before, and this can be ‘gut-puckering’ for everyone!.

Managing, or orchestrating convergent behaviours to achieve known outcomes, demands a specific set of competencies which have been long-since taught and encouraged in our business schools;

  • Analyzing and synthesizing information
  • Presenting ideas and persuading others through rational argument
  • Securing and organizing resources and setting standards
  • Creating strategies and options to assist implementation of plans
  • Making decisions and setting priorities, and
  • Focusing communication and exerting control.

Leading and inspiring others to embrace an increasingly divergent set of unknown and perhaps unknowable options, requires markedly different competencies, and some will argue that these can be learned only through direct experience; for example:

  • Adapting and coping with risk and uncertainty
  • Collaborating and supporting others with the challenges of change
  • Accruing personal and collective resiliency and recovery from setbacks
  • Building networks and trust-based relationships
  • Mentoring and coaching others towards personal and organizational success, and
  • Learning and developing through awareness and acquisition.

Surely this demonstrates a completely different focus in our dealings with others particularly. The point of focus changes radically and sometimes this has to be achieved in a heartbeat. As an executive switches tools from management to leadership or vice-versa, attention and efforts can be moved to new dimensions, perspectives or responses that will better accomplish the desired results.

Marie is the Customer Service Director of a major distribution company. Recently she was experiencing frustration because customers were becoming more and more disgruntled despite the fact that her staff had intensified their efforts to provide needed support services. "We can’t seem to do anything right these days,” she observed, "everything that’s ever worked for us in the past appears to irritate customers rather than satisfy them!”

Enforcing corporate standard operating procedures (SOPs) and intensifying training wasn’t helping at all, so Marie decided that it was time for a fresh ‘take’ on customer needs and wants; she initiated a detailed survey and the findings were indeed revealing. There had been a major shift in customer emphasis from ‘quality outcomes’ to ‘speed of response’. What was irritating customers was that it was all taking too long - although they were insisting on the same level of service.

Performance monitoring had been focused on specific factors from the old paradigm; a new one was needed. Marie called her staff together and discussed the survey findings in-depth. There were many nods of agreement but far fewer ideas and suggestions about how future responses could be applied. Marie recognized that she must lead the team to a new reality and this would, in turn, demand a different set of behaviours on her part.

At first it was hard and very uncomfortable for her; she worried about letting go on controls, introducing uncertainty and worried about perceived personal inconsistency. But she had a dream – an empowered team operating within looser but definitive guidelines to manage the many moments of truth at customer interface – this was an opportunity to engage staff, to increase accountability and to develop ‘remarkable’ service levels as the norm.

Marie made the shift by first identifying her vision within the realities of each one of her direct reports and through them to all staff. She invested a great deal of time and effort to parallel the new service paradigm with the personal aspirations of her people, and it worked!

Then she applied her personal, inherent strengths in developing leadership competencies; the very nature of her relationships with her people changed dramatically as she focused on helping them to adapt, learn and recover as they attempted new and untried strategies. She is now perceived as a trusted friend, mentor and coach rather than as a boss, director and controller.

Marie’s vision, as well as the parallel visions of her people, kept them all ‘on track’ and it took just a few months to achieve a substantial break-through, with recognition and kudos from customers and the industry.

Getting There . . .

Visions are the substance of the future. A critical insight is based on the fact that our minds do not distinguish between imagination (the vision) and reality (what we actually experience). There’s a whole new discussion on the nature of consciousness - on how we experience the worlds in which we live - that would explore this, which we’ll reserve for sometime in the future. Suffice it, for now, to accept this common perception because it tells us that we have only to envision it to make it happen.

Dare to dream - but then act upon those dreams and do what is needed to translate current experiences to conform with the expectations and desires that we anticipate; for this makes us ‘visionaries’ as opposed to just ‘dreamers’.

We can become entrapped. We can easily expand our horizons to the point that we can no longer navigate a practical course forward; we are perhaps "cock-eyed optimists" and "Pollyannas". We can also limit our horizons so that we restrict our options and prevent a full perspective on what could be accomplished if only we’d truly dare.

Many will attempt to go to the future by simply extending the past; they work forward from the present by projecting probabilities and anticipating possibilities.  The resultant ‘tether line’ will eventually bring us up short and our freedom to create will be seriously impaired, yet there’s much safety in staying within the bounds of what is already known-for-sure and secure.

The successful few will have let go of current realities and reached out to grasp "potentials” – dreams of substance that have the necessary teeth to gain purchase and to hang on despite challenges. Letting go in order to reach forward is essential; we cannot both hold on and let go – that doesn’t work.

An essential, inherent strength required to achieve this is courage. We do not learn to be courageous, it’s within us all but not everyone has become aware of it, and there are so many who are too fearful to risk being exposed to the need to become aware. Until we truly know our self though we cannot be credible as leaders of others so direct knowledge and experience of our courageousness is a crucial awareness.

Out of courage is born confidence, and from that persistence and resilience, adaptability and other-awareness. The elite British military unit, the Special Air Service (SAS), have as their motto "Who Dares Wins” and they accomplish remarkable things, way beyond most other military organizations. Their business is leadership and their product is the ‘impossible’.

As business leaders, facing the unknowns of a volatile and unprecedented future, dare we be any less?

Think about it!

I’d welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. We can all learn through dialogue and your viewpoints will undoubtedly gain more value when shared. Please contact me at david@andros.org.