I had a colleague who was known for saying, “Leaders have to be able to see around two corners.” He was right, of course. Leaders are expected to anticipate what is coming around the bend and, more importantly, to have prepared their organizations for whatever they might encounter. Easier said than done, especially given that there are so many obstacles in front of you right now that can distract attention away from some unseen future risk or opportunity. But hey, if this leadership gig was easy, everyone would be doing it, right?!?
A starting point in developing the vision to see around two corners is to honestly look at how future-focused you are as a leader — not how future-focused you aspire to be, but what your actions actually indicate. Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad, in their book “Getting Off the Treadmill: Competing for the Future” offer a rating scale to gauge your organization’s future focus. Think of each of these questions as a five-point continuum, and consider where you would rate your organization.
- When considering the future, is your organization conventional and reactive or distinctive and far sighted?
- Where do your senior leaders focus more of their attention, on reengineering core processes or regenerating core strategies?
- Is your organization seen as a “rule taker” or a “rule maker”?
- Are you better at improving operational efficiency or at developing new businesses?
- How much of your effort focused on catching up with others versus building new advantages/opportunities?
- Is your “transformation agenda” set by others or is it set by your organization’s own unique vision of the future?
- Are you more of a maintenance engineer working on the present or an architect designing the future?
- Within your organization, what is there a greater sense of anxiety or hope?
I’m not suggesting that no one in your organization should be focusing on the first item on each bullet above. But as a leader, if that is where you are spending the majority of your time you, and your organization, are likely to be caught off guard by whatever is lurking around the next corner, much less the second one.
The urgency of the here and now is always going to scream louder than the importance of the future. Also, there is a concreteness to tackling today’s problems. Considering the future is less definitive and may feel less productive, especially if you are a list-checker. All true. Yet, none of these things help you prepare for the future, and preparing for the future is your job as the leader. If you skew toward the here and now, how do you become more future focused? Pick one or two of the bullets above and identify specific steps you can take to move the dial toward the future. That may get you around the first corner. Pick a couple more. Push yourself. You never know what opportunity might be waiting . . . around the second corner.