One of the first things people want to know about their leader is their vision of the future. It’s a long-term future vision that distinguishes great leaders. Great leaders take time to think about where they’re heading. They focus their energy on the opportunities that lie ahead rather than the problems of the past. This future focus is the one quality that sets apart great leaders.
“Leaders are fascinated by the future. You are a leader if, and only if, you are restless for change, impatient for progress and deeply dissatisfied with the status quo… As a leader, you are never satisfied with the present, because in your head you can see a better future, and the friction between ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’ burns you, stirs you up, propels you forward. This is leadership.” – Marcus Buckingham, The One Thing You Need to Know
Great leaders have a strong sense of direction and a clear point of view. Unless leaders know where they’re going people will be reluctant to follow.
Great Leaders Think Long-Term
Too often leaders overly concern themselves with the next 3 – 5 years, whilst this may be important it’s the responsibility of management, not leaders.
Great leaders don’t think in five or even 10 years. No. Great Leaders think long-term +20 years, some even have timeframes of 100 years! Well that’s impossible you may argue. In todays fast changing technological world long-term thinking is dead, a leadership practice of a past and bygone era. Businesses fail when they mistakenly pursue short-term goals ahead of long-term ones. Consider that some of the biggest corporate failures over the past few decades have been the direct result of short-term thinking – Kodak, Enron, Blockbuster Video, Borders and many more. Short-term thinking shuts down your power in the present. Short-term thinking limits the opportunities you see and those you choose to pursue.
The Lack of long-term thinking is a common blind spot. Clayton Christensen – Professor at Harvard Business School – widely regarded as one of the world’s top experts on innovation and growth – makes the following observation.
“We are focused on the wrong metrics. Our universities are training entrepreneurs — and investors — to focus on fast and efficient return on capital investment. Efficiency innovations provide return on investment in 12-18 months. Empowering innovations take 5-10 years to yield a return.” – Clayton Christensen, “Clayton Christensen, On The Entrepreneurial Innovations Our Economy Needs“
Great leaders are future focused and have a long-term vision of more that 20 years. Great leaders recognise that most of us tend to over estimate what we can achieve in the short-term, but grossly under-estimate what can be achieved in the long-term.
Future Focused Leaders are Explorers and Pioneers
Great leaders have an long-term vision and therefore they think and behave as explorers and pioneers. They disrupt the status quo, they take risk, they push the boundaries, they challenge social norms, they break with the past, they inspire those around them to become great.
Great leaders are by their nature explorers and pioneers, seeking new lands and striving for distant shores. Kouzes and Posner in their their classic book “The Leadership Challenge” describe leaders as follows.
“Leaders are pioneers. They are people who venture into unexplored territory. They guide us to new and often unfamiliar destinations. People who take the lead are the foot soldiers in the campaigns for change. . . The unique reason for having leaders – their differentiating function – is to move us forward. Leaders get us going someplace.”
Leaders deal in the future, they have a long-term future focus, a touch stone and signpost that points the way, giving others the confidence to follow, to make sacrifices and to take bold steps forward.
The Challenge to Become a Great Leader
A long-term future focus is the distinguishing quality of great leaders. Leaders are the stewards of the future, they’re always looking at what’s new and what’s next. Leaders look to the horizon and think beyond what they see directly in front of them. They’re actively moving towards a new and compelling future. To make an impact. To make a meaningful difference. To create meaning and inspire others. To leave a legacy. This is why great leaders invest time in thinking about and building tomorrows future.
“We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it.” – Barack Obama, speech to joint session of Congress, 9 September, 2009