Focusing on the Future Sets Leaders Apart
Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner
We’ve all had a glimpse of the future. You know, that time when you imagined running your own business… or that dream of traveling to an exotic place… or that bold idea for a game-changing new product… or that burning desire to get an advanced degree… or that sense of purpose you felt when you signed up for the sustainability campaign… or that calling to join a cause and make this a better planet… or that uplifting sense you got when picturing kids playing in a neighborhood without fear. All of us dream of what might come to pass some day. Leaders take these dreams seriously and act to make them happen.
The truth is that focusing on the future sets leaders apart.
The capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is the defining competence of leaders. We know this because we asked followers. For over thirty years we’ve been asking people to tell us what they most look for and admire in a leader, someone they would willingly follow.
The quality of being forward-looking is second only to honesty as the most admired leader characteristic. On average, 71 percent of respondents select it. In Asia, Europe, and Australia the preference for forward-looking is several percentage points higher than it is in America.
We’ve also been asking a similar question about what people look for in a colleague (someone they’d like on their team), and the responses to this question have revealed a telling and vital distinction between leaders and individual contributors.
Using the identical list of desirable qualities, the number one requirement of a leader, honesty, is also the top-ranking attribute of a good colleague. But, the second most desirable quality of a leader — being forward-looking – is not even in the top ten attributes of a colleague. It’s selected by only 27 percent of the respondents. No other quality we’ve studied showed such a dramatic difference between leader and colleague.
Yet, in spite of the fact that being forward-looking is the quality that most separates leaders from individual contributors, it’s something that too few fully appreciate, and too many devote almost no time to developing.
If nothing is done to address this shortcoming, it will become a huge barrier to your future success. That’s because the challenge escalates with managerial level. Frontline leaders are expected to anticipate events only about three months down the road. Middle level managers often need to look three to five years into the future. Those in the executive suite must focus on a horizon that’s ten or more years distant.
Crossing the chasm from individual contributor to leader requires fully embracing the need to develop the capacity to envision the future. Making the transition from average to exemplary leader, regardless of level, requires the dedication to master it.
And how does a new leader develop the capacity to be forward-looking?
The answer is deceptively simple: spend more time in the future. You have to carve out more time each week to peer into the distance and imagining what might be out there. You have to take the time today in order to have the time tomorrow.
The trouble is, it’s not all that easy to do. The most experienced and senior executives struggle with it. Some researchers have found, for example, that top executives spend only about 3 percent of their time thinking about, and getting others on board with, the critical issues that will shape their business ten or more years down the road. That’s not nearly enough time. That’s why you have to be disciplined about this.
One of the leaders we interviewed said to us, “I’m my organization’s futures department.” All leaders should view themselves this way. Because being forward-looking is the differentiating leadership quality, you need to spend more time reading about, thinking about, and talking about the long-term view. Make it your business to study the future.
Set up a futures research committee to study potential changes and developments in areas affecting your organization. Put together a team to continually track fifty or sixty publications that represent new thoughts on trends in your domain. Ask them to prepare abstracts of articles they think have relevance. A smaller team can then pull the abstracts into reports for use in planning and decision-making. Or simply have all the people in your organization regularly clip articles from newspapers, magazines, and Web sites.
Circulate the ideas generated and discuss the impact of trends on your products, services, technologies, and constituents. Use these discussions to help you and your organization develop the ability to think long-term.
Developing the capacity to envision the future requires you to spend more time in the future – meaning more time reflecting on the future, more time reading about the future, and more time talking to others about the future. It’s not an easy assignment, but it is an absolutely necessary one. It also requires you to reflect back on your past to discover the themes that really engage you and excite you. And it means thinking about the kind of legacy you want to leave and the contributions you want to make.
It’s your job as a leader to lift people’s sights and lift people’s spirits.
You must remind others – who are often so mired in the day-to-day of work and life that they lose their bearings – that there is a larger purpose to all this doing. You and they are working hard in order to build something different, to make something new, to create a better future. That’s why it’s important to invest the time today in tomorrow’s future.
Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner are the coauthors of the bestselling and award-winning The Leadership Challenge, and over a dozen other books on leadership including The Truth About Leadership, Making Extraordinary Things Happen in Asia, A Leader’s Legacy, Credibility, and Encouraging the Heart. Jim is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership and Barry is the Accolti Endowed Professor of Leadership at the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. Follow them on Twitter @Jim_Kouzes and @TLCTalk and find them on Facebook Jim Kouzes and TLC Page.
Vision is not the hot buzzword it once was. I’m wondering why – is it considered outdated in the context of today’s fast-paced, ever-changing world?… have we “vision experts” failed to communicate it well enough?… have we failed to show how vision links to daily work life? … is the term so overused that it has lost its meaning? Or is there another reason, perhaps?
Recently a senior executive asked me to help him with a vision statement. He saw this as an activity that needed to be completed. Although he wasn’t clear about his vision for the company, he just wanted help writing a good statement that would satisfy the board. I don’t think he’s unusual.
I have written about this question before in The Last Thing You Need Is a Vision and also when I asked the question What Happened to Vision? Your Thoughts? where a number of readers shared their thoughts.
To explore this further, I have invited several leadership experts and thought-leaders to join me in sharing their views.
Not wanting to push my own agenda, I asked them to be candid in their views. Here’s what I said in my invitation:
The basic question I’d like you to address in some form is: Is vision relevant today?
I’d like to hear what you strongly believe – no matter what that is. I would like my readers to hear from a variety of the brightest thought-leaders. I have no agenda, and I don’t want to shape what you will say.
Value of Vision Blog Series
The Value of Vision Blog Series will begin on Monday. I will host posts twice a week for the next month. You will hear a variety of views because each author has approached the topic differently. You’ll hear from:
1. Ken Blanchard – Author of The One Minute Manager and over 30 other leadership books.
2. Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner – Authors of The Leadership Challenge.
3. Whitney Johnson – Co-founder of Rose Park Advisors, Clayton Christensen’s investment firm, and author of Dare-Dream-Do.
4. Doug Conant – Former CEO of Campbell Soup
5. Shilpa Jain– Executive Director of YES!
6. Tanvi Gautam – Managing Partner, Global People Tree
7. Daniel Burrus – Technology futurist and author Flash Foresight
8. Jesse Lyn Stoner – me
I hope you will find these thought-provoking and will be inspired to join the conversation.
Recently Annette Richmond asked me for some suggestions on how to quit your job for a Forbes article. She incorporated several of these suggestions in her excellent article: How to Quit Your Job the Right Way.
If you want to quit your job, make sure you don’t leave your dignity behind. It’s a good idea not to burn your bridges. But more importantly, how you quit is about who you are and how you feel about yourself.
These 8 suggestions will help you leave on a good note. They won’t guarantee it, because you can’t control other people’s reactions. But even if there is negativity, if you leave with what cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien calls Honorable Closure, you will be able to feel good about yourself.
1. Do your homework. Before you make the decision to quit, be clear about what your motivation is. Is it because: Career opportunities are limited? There something more attractive elsewhere? This is not the work you want to be doing after all? There is a lack of support from from boss or co-workers, or too much conflict? Some of these reason are because you are moving forward to what you desire. Whatever your assumptions are, have you tested them and are sure they are correct?
2. Never make the decision to leave while you are caught in emotions. If you are really angry, take the time for your rational brain to kick back in. You might still decide to leave, but you can make a rational decision on the best way to proceed.
3. Don’t feel guilty. Your attitude makes a huge difference in how you come across when you tell your boss you’re leaving. You don’t need to feel guilty or defensive about leaving a job. According to statistics, the median number of years in a job is around four years. Some people realize immediately that they have landed in the wrong place. If that’s the case, the honorable thing to do is to move on before it gets worse.
4. If you are asked why you are leaving, be clear, be straight, be descriptive. You are more credible when you share information and facts. Don’t dump a lot of emotional baggage, accusations, or generalities that can’t be verified.
5. Tell your boss before you tell your co-workers so he or she doesn’t hear it first through the rumor mill.
6. Consider discussing your concerns with your boss before you make the final decision to leave. It might be there are options you are not aware of that would affect your decision.
7. Give enough warning so they are not hanging in the lurch.
8. Give it your all to the end. There can be a temptation to slack off when you know you’re leaving. Seeing it through to the finish will help you feel good about your contribution and yourself as you walk out the door the last time.
You might think you’re a team player, especially if you’re the kind of person who gets things done and is committed to helping your team meet its objectives. But if you don’t also pay attention to how your team works together, you may actually be a ninja – acting solo in service of your team.
The problem with being a ninja is you can inadvertently undermine your team’s effectiveness.
Meet James, a Ninja in Disguise.
When James was asked if he would like to join the new product team, he accepted enthusiastically. He had expertise in several product lines, had launched new products before and prided himself in being a team player.
The company was interested in extending their reach into new markets, and the team was charged with determining which market to enter and designing the product.
After weighing recommendations from several department leaders and a long deliberation, the team came to consensus on their recommended market. The next day they received an email from a department leader making a detailed case for a completely different approach.
Ninja Action: James sent an email to his team that was enthusiastic about the new recommended approach… and he copied the department leader on his email.
The Effect: Not only did the team need to meet again to reopen their decision, but also after careful deliberation where they clarified once again their original decision was the best one, they now had to deal with the expectations of the department leader James had copied. James actions caused a lot of extra time and effort for the team, and the disappointed department leader never entirely supported the team’s recommendation.
After getting approval for the concept of the product line, the team needed to plan the details – exactly what the offering would look like, how they would go to market, etc.
The question of branding came up. The team decided there were other priorities, and they should wait.
Ninja Action: On his own initiative, James went to the marketing department who spent considerable time developing three options that James then presented to the team.
The Effect: James thought he was furthering the team efforts. However, it was premature, as the team hadn’t outline specifications for what message they wanted to convey. Because of the efforts by the marketing department, the team was felt they needed to choose one of the designs.
Guest Post by Bill Treasurer
Leadership: It’s amazing how complicated leadership “experts” have made the topic. I know because I am one of them. I am a senior ranking officer in what can only be called the Legion of Leadership Complexifiers (the LLC).
We members of the LLC make our livelihood plumbing, parsing, and peddling leadership concepts. We use fancy words and nitpick the life out of the subject.
Sure, most of us are well-intentioned, but by complicating leadership, we have created an unrealistic and largely unattainable standard for people to live up to.
We set impossible expectations when we tell leaders they need to be:
Bold and calculated
Passionate and reasonable
Rational and emotional
Confident and humble
Driven and patient
Strategic and tactical
Competitive and cooperative
Principled and flexible
Faced with such a laundry list of expectations, how on earth could anyone fulfill all these roles? Why would they want to be a leader?
Keep it simple! The truth is, leadership doesn’t have to be complex.
It’s time to lighten the leadership load and bring leadership back to what’s most essential. Here are six tips that simplify leadership and re-focus on what’s essential.
1. Focus on a Positive Future: Always keep the best days of the people you’re leading in front of them. Focus on looming achievements on the horizon, not the glory days of the past.
2 Stop Stoking Fear: Here’s the most overused phrase in the history of business: What keeps me awake at night… Phrases like that only serve to make people anxious. Followers would rather know what gets you up in the morning.
3. Motivate with Opportunity: People will move mountains, if in exchange for doing so, they grow and develop. Benjamin Disraeli was right, “Opportunity is more powerful even than conquerors and prophets.”
4. Know Them Until You Care: Get to know the career desires, goals, and aspirations of each of your people. When you know them, you’ll care about them. And when you care about them, their trust and loyalty increases.
5. Stretch into Discomfort: People grow and develop in a zone of discomfort, not comfort. Task people with stretch assignments that cause them to grow and make them a tad uncomfortable.
6. Be Grateful: Your job is to help your people be eminently successful. When they are, you will be deemed an effective leader…because of their work. Be grateful, and say, “Thank you!”
Leadership may not be easy, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. When you cut through the clutter, leadership is about advancing the growth and development of those you lead.
Think of a leader you admire – someone who actually led you. What do you admire about him or her?
- Did she provide you with an opportunity where you could grow your skills?
- Did he give you candid feedback that caused you to see yourself in a more honest way?
- Did she value your perspective, input, and ideas?
- Did he create opportunities for you to stretch, grow, and excel?
Leaders open doors. They create opportunities for those they lead. It’s as simple as that! And when you stay focused on this, everything else falls into place.
Bill Treasurer is the Chief Encouragement Officer of Giant Leap Consulting. His latest book Leaders Open Doors focuses on how leaders create growth through opportunity. Bill is also the author of the bestseller Courage Goes to Work and Courageous Leadership: A Program for Using Courage to Transform the Workplace, an off-the-shelf training toolkit that organizations use to build workplace courage. Bill has led courage-building workshops for a huge range of companies such as NASA, Accenture, CNN, PNC Bank, SPANX, Hugo Boss, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. You can contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter at @btreasurer.
A personal note from Jesse: This week marks the launch of Bill’s excellent new book, Leaders Open Doors: A Radically Simple Leadership Approach to Lift People, Profits, and Performance. It’s a simple, yet powerful, easy read, packed with helpful advice and illustrated with charming stories. Not only is this book a valuable resource, but when you purchase it, you will be “opening doors” for children with special needs – because Bill is donating 100% of the royalties to charities that support them. Check out this inspiring 2 minute video that explains why he is doing this.
Positive thinking can do wonders for your attitude. But it’s not enough to get you where you want to go. Instead of thinking positively about being great, imagine what great looks like.
Visualize a picture of the end-result. Create a picture in your mind of the future you desire. Close your eyes and see it happening right now.
If you’re concerned about giving a speech, it helps to imagine giving the speech successfully. But the real power is in visualizing the end result— see yourself getting a standing ovation at the end of your speech, or if you’re an athlete, see yourself standing on the podium receiving the gold medal.
The power is in picturing the end result. The process for achieving it, the path, will not necessarily be clear.
My first experience with the power of picture took place in a fifth grade classroom. My first job was teaching reading to children with learning disabilities. Most children learn to read the same way they learn to walk and talk. They get a little support from an adult, but they pick it up naturally. When it doesn’t come naturally, it’s really hard for them to learn.
By the time they are 10 years old, they are discouraged by years of failure, watching other children pass them by. One day it occurred to me that the children were so discouraged they probably couldn’t even imagine they could enjoy reading a book.
I had been reading about how mental imagery made a huge difference in the 1976 Olympics. The USSR had stunned the world by walking away with most of the gold medals. The Soviets had discovered that when competitive skiers supplemented their practice through visualization, not only were they better prepared to ski in a variety of conditions, but their motivation and self-confidence also increased.
So I tried an experiment with the children. Every day we spent ten minutes in a relaxed guided meditation. We began imagining going into the library, finding a cozy spot and curling up with a great picture book. By the end of the year, they were imagining going into the library reading long books with no pictures. I didn’t change anything else about the way I was teaching. I just added the relaxed visualization. That year the children’s progress increased, we had more fun in the classroom, and they started reading library books on their own.
Was this a real scientific experiment? No. But it made me aware of the power of creating a mental picture of what you desire, and it sparked my interest in vision.
How to harness the power of picture.
Over the years, studying vision and helping leaders in a variety of settings I learned that the real power comes when you focus on what you desire. Proactively focus on what you want, not reactively on your problems. While you might remove a specific problem, you are likely to discover another problem awaits, and you will move from one crisis to another. Instead of focusing on problems, picture the results you desire.
For example, if you want to lose weight, obviously you need to eat less. However, if you frequently think about the chocolate you can’t eat, it’s difficult to maintain motivation over the long term. Instead, picture what you’ll look like in your new jeans whenever your thoughts turn to chocolate.
Eight tips for creating a picture of your desired future:
- Be proactive, not reactive. Move toward what you want rather than away from what you do not want.
- Be creative and playful. Give yourself permission to explore, to dream.
- Do not let your fears and concerns limit your thinking.
- Visualize the end result, not the process for getting there. See yourself standing on the podium receiving the gold medal.
- Focus on what really matters to you. Ask, What do I want to do? not What should do?
- See it actually happening. Close your eyes and imagine what it looks like.
- Put yourself in the picture. Imagine what you are doing and what the quality of your relationships look like.
- Don’t waste your time imagining someone changing. The only one you can change is yourself.
Don’t stop here.
In our book Full Steam Ahead: Unleash the Power of Vision, Ken Blanchard and I say “Vision is knowing who you are, where you’re going, and what will guide your journey.”
Knowing where you’re going means having a picture of your destination in your mind. A picture is not the same as a vision, but it IS one of the three critical elements of a compelling vision, and it has a tremendous power. To create a compelling vision, remember the other two elements: Knowing who you are means being clear on your purpose, and what guides your journey are your values. Know what you stand for and live your values consistently.
Most of us know what Supervising Closely looks like. It’s doing things like:
- Setting goals.
- Telling what needs to be done.
- Explaining how to do it.
- Setting timelines.
- Checking progress.
- Providing frequent feedback.
And most of us know what Delegating looks like:
- You leave them alone and let them do their job.
If you want to be an effective leader, you need to be able to hang out in the space in the middle.
It doesn’t work when you try to jump over that space.
When you jump from Closely Supervising to Delegating.
Nancy decided to delegate her calendar to her new assistant. Her assistant took over scheduling like any other activity – she efficiently fit names in open slots. The problem was that friends who wanted a “let’s touch base” call were treated like clients and given “appointments.” (which they didn’t appreciate). And some clients were annoyed because they were used to a personal touch and felt distanced.
When you jump from Delegating to Closely Supervising.
After numerous complains by clients and friends, Nancy told her assistant to check with her before scheduling. Later she was surprised to overhear her assistant complaining that she was too controlling. Once someone has been given responsibility for something, it’s hard to take it back.
The space between Supervising Closely and Delegating is where growth occurs and where relationships are forged.
It’s an interactive space. It’s about both of you, not just the task at hand.
What you do in this space:
- Asking questions
- Asking their opinion
- Debriefing and learning from mistakes
- Providing perspective
As a leader, where do you spend most of your time? If you really want to know, ask your direct reports. You might be surprised at what they have to say.
When should you stop hanging out in the middle and move to Delegating? – When they have demonstrated they are fully competent and confident to do the work independently. Just as Nancy found out, you’re not doing anyone a favor by delegating too soon.
The Difference Between Delegating and Abdicating
When you abdicate, you disappear.
When you delegate, you stay aware of:
- Major issues that could affect success (ultimately you are accountable).
- Completion of major milestones.
When you delegate, your job is to make it easy for them to do their job. The kinds of things you do are:
- Remove roadblocks.
- Provide resources they need.
- Provide opportunities for interesting, new challenges.
- Protect them from unrealistic demands from the larger organization.
- Champion them in the larger organization.
Guest Post by Jennifer B. Kahnweiler
I am delighted to host this guest post by my colleague Jennifer Kahnweiller in celebration of the launch of her excellent new book Quiet Influence: The Introvert”s Guide to Making a Difference. Jennifer is recognized world-wide as the “go-to” expert on the power of introverts following the success of her first book The Introverted Leader.
Who gets their voice heard in the office? Now more than ever, it’s not the ones shouting to make themselves known. It’s the highly effective quiet influencers: introverts who use their natural strengths to make a big difference without making a lot of noise.
If you tend to be more reflective than talkative, more into writing than presenting, or more into listening than selling, here are six ways to use your natural strengths to an advantage:
1) Take quiet time: Introverts prioritize periods of solitude that provides them with a powerful source of creativity and self-awareness. Tip: Schedule quiet time on your calendar. Dim the lights, turn off the radio and reduce distractions from technology to get inside your head.
2) Prepare: Introverts increase their confidence to influence others by increasing their knowledge, creating a strategy and rehearsing. Tip: Prepare on two levels. First, focus on content by researching your topic and getting your facts in order. Then, prepare yourself through visualization, role-playing and positive self-talk.
3) Listen: This innate introvert talent helps Quiet Introverts establish rapport and mutual understanding – especially when they observe body language, ask questions and serve as a sounding board for others. Tip: Slow down and get face-to-face when you can. Take the time to paraphrase what you are hearing to check your understanding.
4) Focus the conversations: Introverts excel at the serious, purpose-driven, one-on-one or small group interactions vital for problem solving, working through conflicts, and winning people over. Tip: Turn e-mail chains into conversations by picking up the phone or walking down the hall to see a colleague. You’ll make an impression and give yourself a better opportunity to use your strong listening skills.
5) Write: Introverts use this skill to influence others through deep, authentic, well-developed arguments that motivate others to action. Tip: Think of writing as your craft. Pay attention to words, build logical and persuasive arguments, and proofread to avoid distracting errors.
6) Use social media: Introverts naturally use social media in a thoughtful and more effective way to develop and grow relationships, achieve visibility, and mobilize people—even those far across the globe. Tip: Don’t stress yourself out by trying to participate in every new social media technology. Instead, go back to the plan you developed in your preparation phase. Match the social media you use to your intended audience and influencing goal, and then use that one tool well instead of diluting your efforts.
By tapping into these strengths of quiet influence, extroverts and introverts alike can better benefit themselves and their organizations by effectively communicating insights and innovative ideas.
Interested in learning more about what kind of influencer you are? Go to JenniferKahnweiler.com and take a quiz to determine your tendency towards Quiet Influence.
About Jennifer Kahnweiler. Jennifer is a workplace and career expert, international speaker and executive coach whose clients include General Electric Co., AT&T Inc., The National Center for Disease Control and Prevention and NASA.
Her new book, Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference (Berrett-Koehler, 2013) further establishes her as a “champion for introverts” and follows on from her 2009 hit, The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength (Berrett-Koehler, 2009). You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @JennKahnweiler and find her on Facebook. For more information please visit www.jenniferkahnweiler.com.