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Anyone else exhausted by bold leaders and their convincing statements about a future they can’t actually predict?
Of course, I get it. A leader’s calling is to LEAD. Leaders consider present situations to inspire future direction.
We are not called, however, to pretend we know what the future holds.
We are leaders, not fortune tellers.
Case in point: In 1999, I made my first purchase on Amazon — the book “Why We Buy: The Science Of Shopping” by Paco Underhill. This book was required reading in my MBA program. Here’s a book description from the website:
“An expert on shopping behavior and motivation offers a witty analysis of consumers’ tastes and habits, explaining why point-of-sale purchases are still the most significant, why Internet shopping will not replace the mall, how hardware stores are adapting to women’s needs, and more.”
Read that again if you need to. “Why Internet shopping will NOT replace the mall.”
Seriously. I can’t make this stuff up. I bought this book on AMAZON, the exact INTERNET SHOPPING SPACE that has obliterated malls and physical retail everywhere! I love the irony!
Underhill wrote this with boldness and complete conviction. He had to! You can’t sell books and build platforms with “I’m not sure what’s really going to happen, but…”
Be honest – at least with yourself. None of us know what tomorrow brings. None of us know how to lead a post-pandemic organization. Most of us barely feel comfortable leading a mid-pandemic organization. We are doing our best to evaluate trends, metrics, and dashboards, but these are primary lag indicators. Meaning, these trends, metrics, and dashboards show us what happened based on what we previously did or didn’t do. These measurements help evaluate and aid planning, but we are fundamentally leading out of best guesses when the future is unknown (and it always is).
This is why no leader announced a 2020 New Year’s resolution of seeing their organization through a global pandemic. We didn’t see that coming. How many of you recently began making plans for the fall only to adjust when the new Delta variant emerged?
KEY QUESTION: As a leader, what should you do when you need to lead forward into a future you can’t predict?
I refuse to be bold enough to prescribe a strategy. I will tell you what I believe great leaders do when looking at the future.
Here are seven leadership actions to take when you are unsure about the future:
1. Remember that strategy is just theory.
Strategy is a plan of action to achieve a goal. When all variables are understood, strategies can be relatively inerrant. When future conditions are unknown or unclear, a strategy is more of a hypothesis than a plan. Sure, your future strategy will have a plan, but it will be founded upon uncertainty.
Point: Strategy is only theory under changing circumstances.
This brings us to leadership action number two:
2. Build flexible models.
Flexible models are the best models when the future is unclear. As the future is nearly always lacking absolute certainty, flexibility is perpetually necessary.
We are seeing the downside of rigid models everywhere around us. Companies who were able to flex under the weight of the pandemic have survived, and in some instances, thrived. On the other side, organizations unable or unwilling to bend their approach to the situation at hand are no longer with us. Best case, they’ve slid into a place of irrelevance. Insert Blockbuster illustration here.
Point: We must proactively build organizational flexibility so we can reactively adjust to a changing community.
3. Continue making decisions.
We are all tempted to pause decision-making when we feel comfortable with the information at hand. Leaders love to gather information as a means to understand problems better and develop strategic solutions. That’s all fine, but even under known circumstances, we’ll only ever have about 80 percent of the information we’d prefer. When considering decisions and strategies for the future, we’re lucky to have half of the necessary information.
In the face of unknowns, it is tempting to pause. Paralysis by analysis. Waiting to gather more information can feel like a prudent move. Of course, considering the future is fundamentally unknown, waiting won’t resolve the tension in total. In most cases, waiting makes it worse.
Point: Not making a decision is often a worse decision than a partially informed decision.
4. Avoid echo chambers (and confirmation bias).
When we attempt to plan for a future we can’t predict, we often seek confirmation for our pending direction. Unfortunately, too many leaders (1) surround themselves with people exactly like them or (2) have built an organization full of people with nothing to say. Both of these are problematic and deserve an entire post. Perhaps later.
For now, commit to listening to more than one opinion. Get second and third opinions from people not like you. This is one reason diversity and inclusion are wise leadership strategies (more importantly, good for humanity). Diversity of perspective provides leaders with a more holistic view. As a leader, always get opposing opinions before setting a direction.
Point: Wise leaders understand that diverse counsel leads to more holistic decisions.
5. Be honest when you’re guessing.
Leaders hate not having answers. The hatred is so great that leaders often pretend to have a solution rather than admit they don’t know. If you’re a leader, practice saying (out loud) the phrase “I don’t know, but let’s try to find out.” The first part of that phrase reminds you to learn, not guess. The second part involves others in the pursuit of understanding. Both pieces are necessary when attempting to define a path forward to a future we can’t fully see.
Point: Honesty is a posture of humility that positions leaders to listen to others.
6. Stop building platforms and start serving others.
Continuing from point 5, leadership by its nature is about others. After all, organizations are simply collections of people. It’s the people we are here to serve.
When leaders pretend to have future clarity, they are displaying their primary concern: Themselves. I don’t know Paco Underhill, the author mentioned above. He may be a wonderful guy who means well and loves well. Who knows? From reading his book, I know that he couldn’t have been more wrong about the internet’s effect on malls and physical retailers. He said it with great boldness and confidence, but he was guessing. And he was utterly wrong.
Take the last 18 months. We’ve heard leader after leader boldly predicting what the post-pandemic world holds for organizations. They don’t know! Nobody does in totality. Sure, some leaders are doing a great job suggesting ideas or concepts as we lead forward, but none of them actually know what the future holds.
If you want to build your brand and platform, be brashly bold about the future. If you want to be honest and serve others better, admit that tomorrow is too full of unknowns to predict confidently.
Point: Stop the faux confidence in the face of persistent uncertainty.
7. When possible, study the past and apply it to the future.
While the future is primarily unclear, the past is always available to study. Not everything we will face in the future has a past counterpart to aid in our strategies. Many future unknowns do. As a student of the past, we can help prevent repeating mistakes.
Hear me loud and clear: This is not always possible. Studying the Spanish Flu doesn’t provide leaders with every answer for COVID-19. But, learning the effects of a past pandemic can shed some light on our path forward.
Point: The past can be an information tool for our future uncertainty.
If you’re a leader, it’s incredibly tempting to make bold predictions. If you’re a leadership influencer, it’s a core piece of the job. But, we all need to pause on the prophecies and admit the reality of the future. By nature, it is uncertain. Let’s implement strategies that move us all forward. Let’s equally acknowledge that our decisions today are pointing toward the unknowns of tomorrow.
How can I help?
Helping ministry and marketplace leaders make things better and make better things is why I created Transformation Solutions. Go right now to mytransformationsolutions.com and sign up for a free, 15-minute conversation to decide if working together works for you.