As humans we exist in time. You and I are strongly influenced by the past, the present and our expectations of the future. As a leader you need to understand the influence of your past. Manage the pressures of today. Whilst you create a compelling vision of the future.
This requires leaders to unlearn and learn in a continuous cycle. Let me explain.
The Pull of the Past
We exist and live in the present. But we have a history – a personal past – that influences how we see the world. As people we hold tightly to the habits and beliefs of our past. And as leaders we become emotionally invested in our past successes. The beliefs and habits that underpinned our past success become deeply embedded in our leadership approach and style.
It’s a human nature to see the present through the lens of the past. However, this tendency causes us to use what worked yesterday in an attempt to solve tomorrows problems. Even when all the facts are to the contrary, we tend act and behave as according to beliefs and principles from our past.
When our past beliefs are strongly held they prevent us from embracing the new.
Leaders whose vision is limited by their past experiences become rapidly irrelevant in a rapidly changing world. Consider Eastman Kodak. Kodak created the first digital camera, an 8 pound, 0.01 megapixel still camera, in 1975. Despite Kodak’s technical innovations – which were numerous – Kodak failed to adapt to the new digital world. In February 2012, Kodak announced that it would cease making digital cameras. Kodak took too long to adapt to the changing world.
Failure begins when we deny, ignore or rationalise the rapidly changing reality. Instead we focus on protecting the status quo, investing in what worked yesterday. When this happens we become enslaved by the past. We Fail to see how our past practices have become less and less effective. Instead of adopting new mindsets, practices and beliefs we continue to rely on what worked in the past.
Your past and your history is useful if used as a springboard into the future. Not an excuse to retain the status quo. Effective leaders selectively hold onto elements of the past, whilst they focus on investing in building for the future.
The Grip of the Present
The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” – Albert Einstein
When the present dominates leaders become short-term focused. The emphasis is shifted to the focus on rapid short-term results. When a leaders attention is on the short-term the result is a focus on tactical initiatives, quick-fixes, silver bullets and reactive fire-fighting. Many of which are started and then disbanded with increasing frequency. This is the nature of the tactical and reactive management focus in many organisations today.
The strong influence that markets and investors exert on short-term performance exacerbates these challenges. The short-term focus of managers is experience as the promotion of tactical projects, the reward of short-term performance and the focus on solving problems of the present. The main focus of managers thus becomes the achievement of short-term numbers, such as reducing annual operational costs and improving quarterly sales performance. All this comes at the expense of investing in long-term vision and capability building. The focus is on the management of short-term results, rather than exercising leadership to build new sources of value and a compelling future vision.
This short-term focus means management tactics are emphasised at the expense of leadership effectiveness.
The Power of the Future
The market stresses a short-term focus. However, effective leaders choose to invest in a compelling long-term vision – consider success of the long-term vision pursued by Jeff Bezos in leading Amazon. So whilst investors and markets may emphasize a short-term focus, they don’t force leaders into taking a short-term view.
Whilst concerns of the present often tend to dominate, short-term concerns must be considered within the context of a long-term future vision. The decisions and actions of the present are best view as a pathway to the future. Effective leaders think beyond the outcomes of today. They’re always thinking about “what’s next?”.
In the same way effective leaders selectively leverage their past as a platform for the future. In so doing they shorten the distance between today and their future vision. They do this by challenging the status quo – especially traditional thinking, habits and ideas about what does and does not work – best practices and commonly accepted wisdom.
The challenge for leaders then is to create balance between the present – short-term pressures – and the long-term future vision. To acknowledge the past whilst creating a compelling vision of the future. Not an easy task. But of critical importance if organisation’s are to succeed and thrive.
The Challenge is to Unlearn, Relearn and Learn
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” – Alvin Toffler
The beliefs, habits and practices from our past are powerful and efficient tools. They allow us to observe reality and quickly respond based on past experience. This ability has ensured our survival over many decades. This works well in stable times. However, we are challenges when things begin to change rapidly. What happens is our experiences and habits of the past become quicklu outdated. They are no longer able to provide reliable responses to our changing reality. It’s in times such as these that you need to be able to unlearn the habits of the past.
If you’ve learnt most of your habits and skills during relatively stability of times past. You may find that your habits and skills are not entirely relevant for your future.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines unlearn as “to forget and stop doing (something, such as a habit) in a deliberate way because it is bad or incorrect”. In a nutshell, unlearning is about letting go of beliefs, habits and practices that have outlived their usefulness.
Unlearning – letting go of past habits that are no longer useful – provides space to reimagine.
In the rapidly changing times of today the challenge for leaders is to constantly unlearn, relearn and learn. To remain relevant a leader must selectively let go the the past – to unlearn. Whilst striving learn the new, to embrace new thinking and practices necessary to navigate into the future. Leading in rapidly changing times requires you to continually adapt your assumptions, beliefs and habits. A continuous process of unlearning and learning.
Unlearning the habits of the past – selectively letting go of past practices – makes place for the new. Leaders who unlearn, relearn and learn, create space so they can take advantage of the winds of change.
Consider the following:
- What habits and beliefs from the past do you need to let go?
- Are you too focused on the short-term?
- Do you have a compelling future vision?
- What is the list of things that you need to unlearn?