Everything you know, all your decisions, what you believe, how you think…everything…is based on the past. What you ate for breakfast, chose to wear to work, how you got to work, and your morning office routine are all decisions based on past experience. How you handle that 11:30 meeting, the vendor visit, and deal with the crisis you don’t yet know about is all a culmination of past experiences and relationships. “No kidding,” you say. Yes, I know that you already know that, but the irony is that every moment of each day, is part of an emerging future that we do not yet know. Leaders are reminded again and again that leadership is a future-oriented responsibility, but leaders (myself included) spend too much time living in the past.
Should we ignore the past? Of course not. The past has valuable information. The highly prized asset of trust is based on past experience. Knowledge gained in the past includes the proper protocol for a myriad of daily situations. Past experiences combine to create a skill set and formulate wisdom. Can you lead without these? No. Is the past important? Yes.
We naturally place high value on the past. Yet, we do not respect and plan for the future effectively.
This point was driven home to me recently as I was reading an old classic, The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen1. The opening sentence of chapter 7 was a jarring thought for me: “Markets that do not exist cannot be analyzed.” Christensen went on to say that “not only are market applications for disruptive technologies unknown at the time of their development, they are unknowable.”
Well, if that’s true should we give up on analysis and projection? No, that’s not Christensen’s point. The proper response to this uncertainty is not to forsake analysis, projection, and planning. Instead, the proper response is it to develop “plans for learning and discovery rather than plans for execution.”
- Execution—fixed, rigid, sequential, planned, certain
- Learning and discovery—openness, flexibility, random, unknown, ambiguous
Most leaders are effective managers of the past, but that’s the problem. We are good managers of the past. However, one of our first responsibilities is to be effective guides into the future. Our followers expect us to lead them into the future. This has several implications:
- Implications for strategic planning – it is better to engage in strategic foresight
- Implications for change management – change plans must be designed to accommodate a constantly changing reality
- Implications for self-concept – accept that your past might not provide you all the answers; be willing to pursue and accept help from others
How future oriented are you as a leader? Do you lean on the past for a sense of certainty and assurance? Or, do you lean into the future with an attitude of readiness and flexibility?
Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.
Photo by Katie Shanice. Available at Flickr.com.
1: Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 1997), Kindle edition.