Anticipation, Concentration, Imagination
Strategic Leadership Part 1

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‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…’ So begins one of Charles Dickens’ most celebrated narratives, The Tale of Two Cities.

Wherever you live and work, those words might just as easily be applied to your city and your industry in our time. Ours is an age of exponential change in which we see unprecedented opportunity mixed with enormous uncertainty. This is a season of huge possibility on the technological front, mixed with great insecurity in terms of the financial outlook.

When we consider some of the likely changes coming at us in business and civic life, we might concur with former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who said: ‘It’s not enough to be up-to-date; you have to be up to tomorrow.’

The need for strategic leadership has never been greater. Yet relatively little is understood about what constitutes a strategic leader – as opposed, say, to a leader who plans, or a leader with vision.

Writer Erwin McManus has said that, ‘We’re born with our potential but we’re not meant to die with it.’ Over many years of speaking to leaders of organisations large and small around the world, I’ve come to the conclusion that some very gifted people take their real potential to the grave. And very often there’s only one reason for it: they’ve not engaged their sphere of influence and employed their particular skills in a strategic way.

In setting up this series of editorials, my questions are straightforward. What makes a strategic leader? What difference will becoming more strategic make to my effectiveness as a CEO, manager or other leader? How do I make a start on a more strategic path today?

Scores of books have been written about strategy in the past few years, yet many of them deal with it in obscure language – as if strategic thinking was the domain of demigods – or, at the other extreme, in lightweight psychobabble. My purpose here is not to offer an exhaustive discussion of the subject, but to suggest some lines of thought for further study; to spark creative insights that may lead you to further investigation.

(In terms of further reading, I recommend you start with the excellent: Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt.)

So, to my central question: What are the key features of strategic leadership?

Let’s start with the bottom line: strategic leaders are, by decision and design, future-friendly.

Whether they consider themselves to be inherently optimists or realists – very few gifted leaders are pessimistic by nature – they will have trained themselves to think and act on the front foot. Back-foot thinking considers mostly what cannot be done, or what has never been attempted, or what could be attempted if it wasn’t for all manner of likely difficulties. Its default emotional response to change is one of apprehension or even paralysing fear.

Strategic, front-foot thinking is anathema to the kind of knee-jerk, paranoid responses some leaders bring to the process of change. It involves a deliberate effort to engage the future and, as far as possible, to shape it in a constructive way.

Steve Jobs will not be remembered as a great people manager. By all accounts, his people-skills and level of emotional intelligence were low. He will not be remembered primarily as a brilliant marketer, either – though his skills in that area are legendary (a legend he liked to help shape). I think Jobs will be remembered most for his commitment to the future and to bringing a small taste of his vision for the future into the present, in the form of gadgets people just love to use.

If you study the great thought-leaders of our time, the figures in any field who are shaping the cultural conversation, you’ll notice that none of them are luddites. They do not hanker for the past and its successes. They don’t spend too much time celebrating past glories.

Neither are they existentialists, living only for the present, or managing present market share. In every case, they are, though perhaps not in any professional sense, futurists – they are all seeking to engage and mould the future today.

As a social futurist, I spend a good deal of my time studying likely future technological, ethical and social change and lecturing, writing and broadcasting about its possible impact on social groups, such as businesses and civic authorities. As a futurist, there are three things I believe I can say with absolute certainty about the future.

The first is that the future, by definition, is unknowable. It defies definitive prediction. As Dan Gardner notes in his book Future Babble – not a tome always friendly to we futurists – if the future could be predicted with certainty, it wouldn’t be the future; it would be the past or the present.

My second conviction is that those who don’t shape the future will, in the end, be shaped by it. We are all, of course, shaped by events around us to some degree. There’s no escaping this fact and it will be as true of our future as it was of our past and our present. However, some people – including prominent leaders – will be more moulded by their environment than others.

They’ve not deliberately and decisively set out to engage in the present those ideas, values, ethics and approaches that may shape the future. As a result, they will be surprised by the future and even made redundant by it.  

The chief of the US Office of Patents announced in 1899 that: ‘Everything that can be invented has been invented.’ Somewhere in the dark recesses of his mind, the best part of history was already behind us as a race. That kind of ignorance can make you redundant really quickly.

Strategic thinking produces influence, because it attempts to makes friends with the future in the present.

This does not make us immune from the ups and downs of professional life; rather, it positions us to better utilize the ups and more effectively learn from the downs.

Kodak learned the hard way how important future-friendliness can be in business. This much-lauded film company produced a working digital camera in the mid-1990s, quite some time before any of its competitors. Yet its executives decided not to push ahead with full production because they didn’t want to compromise their venerated film division.

Today, Kodak is reduced to making photocopiers and paper for photocopiers. Sacred cows and future-thinking are never the best of bedfellows.

There is one more thing I can offer with conviction about the future. Here I borrow a phrase from fellow-futurist Richard Watson:  ‘Technology is not destiny’. The tools we use do not shape our future as much as the decisions we make on how to utilize those tools.

Whatever technologies or natural events come our way, human choice is usually the prime factor in determining the future of our race.

We may not be able to decide in any definitive way what the future will look like, but we can decide on how we’d like it to look – in specific, rather than vague terms. And we don’t need to start with the future of the entire planet; we begin much closer to home, in our own day-to-day marketplace leadership.

How much market share do you want for your products or services in five years from now? What do you want people to be saying about your company in five years’ time? What type of value do you want to add to your customers and clients in that time frame?

What are some of the major obstacles you will face as you proceed with existing projects, or launch new ventures that right now exist only on the drawing board? If one of those obstacles faced you tomorrow, what would you do next? Better still, what might you do now to prevent it from happening?

Captain Chesley Sullenberger landed his stricken commercial aircraft in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. US Airways Flight 1549 had been disabled on its initial climb out, after striking a flock of Canada Geese. His skill and quick-thinking saved the lives of 155 passengers and crew. The American press and media lauded him as a national hero.

His response was matter-of-fact. I’m no hero, he said. He told them that this was his job – and he’d done this type of landing thousands of times in flight simulators.

Whether you call him a hero or not, Sullenberger is definitely a strategic thinker and leader. Making friends with the future can save your life, not to mention your business or enterprise.

Strategic leadership produces not just a desire for positive change, or even a decision to be future-friendly. It decides what it desires for the future then designs various means to bring that about. Wishful thinking and wistful dreaming are the opposite of strategic thinking.

Strategic leaders don’t make it up as they go along – or, at least, winging it is not the core of their process.

Strategic leaders are design-thinkers. This requires anticipation, concentration and imagination.

The anticipation part is wrapped up in the question: ‘Where do I want to be in five years?’ We live in an age of instant gratification. Some of our everyday technologies produce a ‘results-now’ mentality. Eight-nine percent of American teens say they answer an email within five minutes of receiving it. It’s not just the young who are affected by the instantaneous nature of digital communications.

If you place any member of your team at a desk and open their email server, studies suggest that it will take, on average, just 11 minutes for them to be distracted by their emails. It will take 30 minutes for them to reconnect with what they should have been doing and forty percent of them will never get back to what they were doing before they were distracted.

In an age of instant gratification technology, strategic leaders take the long view. Again, the anticipation involved in strategic thought is not wishful thinking or mere daydreaming – though setting your mind free to have ideas can help you at times during the strategic process. At its core, this anticipation is very deliberate and it focuses not just on dreams or goals but on designing actions to bring about those goals.

Concentration is the ability to focus on conditions that will provide a starting point for solving specific problems.

Richard Rumelt cites the construction of the unmanned Surveyor landing craft, which visited the moon in advance of the manned Apollo missions. Over five missions in 1966-7, Surveyor sent back important information about soil composition and topography. Yet designing Surveyor initially presented real problems for NASA engineers. How were they supposed to design a craft to land on a surface they knew almost nothing about? Engineers are problem-solvers; it’s difficult to design a solution to a problem that remains undefined or vague.

The entire project was stalled until one of leading engineers went out on a limb, boldly predicting the type of soil and topography the lander could expect. This engineer couldn’t definitively prove her projections; they were based on educated guesses. Nobody knew for sure. Yet the engineers went to work based on her best guesses and the project moved forward.

In the end, her projections proved to be right, but the lesson lies elsewhere. Sometimes, you’ve got to take a risk, to try something you’re not sure about, in order to move things forward.

Concentrating on one choice in this way can remove much of the complexity and ambiguity which make potential future challenges seem so daunting.

Imagination is also vital to this future-friendly design thinking.

A few years ago, the British Medical Journal reported an interesting phenomenon. American doctors found that Chinese and Japanese Americans had a seven percent greater death rate from chronic heart disease on the fourth day of every month.

Strangely, no similar peak could be found among other ethnic groups. Looking at all the possible physical causes for this, doctors eventually came to the conclusion that the only possible explanation was psychological.

They remained puzzled by the problem until they became aware of an interesting cultural factor. For some Chinese and Japanese people, the number four is considered unlucky. It seems that the anxiety levels of these patients may have increased on the fourth day of each month because they had a negative expectation around that time. For people with existing heart conditions, this boosted the likelihood of heart failure.

As a leader or manager, you can’t live perpetually on the fourth day of the month, inwardly cringing as you wait for something catastrophic to happen.

You will need to establish contingencies to deal with worst-case scenarios – as did Chesley Sullenberger – but you should put your best efforts and energies into producing best-case outcomes. In short, you need to master your imagination when it comes to future thinking.

Psychologists speak about the concept of ‘gestaldt’. This covers a range of important ideas about how the human mind operates, but for our purposes, we’ll cherry-pick just one of them.

The human brain has a habit of associating things it doesn’t recognise with patterns it has already established, so as to create order from the complexity around us. In this way, our brains help us to think in an organised way about an often disorganised environment. Gestaldt refers to our inner picture of reality based upon those perceptions.

Your gestaldt is not fixed or permanent. You can alter the way your brain runs through a given scenario. For example, when your repeat your future goals in present tense words, you deepen the ‘thought channels’ in your brain.

In effect, one idea becomes more strongly associated with other ideas. If you do this for long enough, your overall picture of reality begins to change. If you declare your future goal as a present reality – privately of course (you don’t want friends thinking you’re one bun short of a picnic) – you create a new gestaldt. In effect, you help your brain establish a new pattern through which it interprets your world and its challenges.

I need to add a cautionary note here. Believing that you can change real events only by thinking better thoughts or speaking better words is bordering on the delusional. Obviously, nothing changes just because you or I decide that it should, or declare that it will.

Changing our words or thoughts, realigning gestaldt, is important because it changes the way we act. And bold action based upon proactive thinking is the core of pragmatic leadership.

But more on that in the next instalment….


Mal Fletcher’s new book,Fascinating Times is a social commentary, which takes a sharp-eyed look at a wide range of pressing issues, exploring their impact on social ethics. The book is available NOW on the Amazon Kindle platform (also for other e-readers): click here.



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