Leading from the Future

Management and leadership are future-oriented activities. To be strategic implies having a long time horizon, and engaging with current activities and choices from that broader perspective. To think about (and from) the future is an essential act of management. And yet, this deceptively simple act can be approached through four different mindsets.

Some leaders ignore the long-term future, focusing on the operational requirements of running a complex organization instead – future is seen as a luxury to engage in when things have stabilized (which they never do). Others, faced with the complexity and ambiguity that the future holds, give up, adopting a fatalist stance that they are at the mercy of bigger power, leading to decision paralysis and anxiety.

Most leaders approach the future as a challenge of prediction, as a known question with an unknown answer. Many domains of human agency and expertise, from weather forecasts to insurance to stock markets, exercise this capacity. While this is perfectly legitimate for some domains, conviction that such an approach can help manage the totality of the future only leads to illusions of certainty, groupthink and bias.

Each of these three approaches is unhelpful. Ignoring the future or adopting a fatalist stance towards it leads to diminished capacity for leadership. And viewing the future only through the lens of prediction invites hubris. The future outpaces our individual and collective capacities for prediction, and the increasing complexity and volatility of our world is only making this fact more apparent. The uncertainty we face is irreducible.

The challenge of uncertainty requires a different mindset – one that does not try to explain uncertainty away, but rather to engage with it productively. Don’t know what innovations will emerge in your industry? Build a discipline of looking outward and actively scan your environment for signs of change. Don’t know which product features your customers will want? Implement rapid prototyping and test it quickly and cheaply. Are you faced with a fundamental market-entry uncertainty you can’t resolve but have to manage? Develop a set of scenarios and, through them, a set of robust strategies that will help you thrive irrespective of the outcome.

Acting decisively in the face of uncertainty is a cornerstone of good management. This same challenge exists whether you are leading a Fortune 500 company, a middle-market firm or an entrepreneurial venture. The first step is to choose the right mindset, and then build the capacity, tools and methods to take responsibility for the future of your organization.