The next great leaders will be those that understand there is no one single future and that their peripheral vision of possible futures will be more of an asset than the 20:20 vision of the past.
As Jack Welch, legendary CEO of General Electric said, “The world of the 1990s and beyond will not belong to ‘managers’ or those who can make the numbers dance. The world will belong to passionate, driven leaders – people who not only have enormous amounts of energy, but who can energise those whom they lead.” The financial crisis was caused by leaders who made the numbers dance, but who failed to ask “what if all the numbers go the wrong way?” They assumed that a diverse portfolio guaranteed a stable outcome.
Future great leaders are those that look forward and not back. Name one great business leader who simply followed the paradigms of the time. Branson, Jobs or Gates; they didn’t inherit greatness, they created it. Do you think they should choose successors by asking that person to follow in their footsteps? Just as you don’t drive a car by looking in the rear view mirror, the art of succession planning is not about finding an imitator, it is about finding somebody who will move on and build an organisation fit for the future.
If you are currently succession planning, the good news is that if any generation of leaders understand that things change, the world doesn’t stay the same, and that yesterday does not tell us all we need to know about tomorrow, it will be this one. One of the main conclusions drawn from failed leadership and the recession was that some leaders believed past successes were a guarantee of a successful future. Our next generation of leaders must inspire their teams to move forward with confidence and not look back with blind deference. Future leaders who will be successful in this new world are those with the ability to; Think Strategically – 5, 10 and 20+ years out, Develop Their Own Future Scenarios, Communicate a Vision
For this new breed of leader, the challenge will be to think strategically when the world around them is moving at a rate of knots. This will take nerve and vision, but not 20:20 vision. The future art of strategic leadership is peripheral vision. This will be a major shift in leadership thinking – this is not about them having a Plan A and a Plan B – it is about them becoming aware of a range of possible futures and how they might arrive there, as well as recognising the levers they would need to pull if any one of those future scenarios were to unfold. Of course, no one can predict the future. However, if your successor is able to look at several possible futures, at what they would need to do to respond to each, and finally, what early warning signs there are, they may notice a particular future is emerging. Then you have a leader fit for what will always be an uncertain future. They will be much better prepared to be proactive rather than reactive across a range of different possibilities. This means that the whole organisation can be much more agile in its response to its environment. But, this is not a short term exercise; it is looking forward a minimum of 20 years. Your successor will still need to have a five or ten year plan, but short terms plans are fraught with the here and now, not all the possible destinations their organisations may arrive at. How many business leaders have a 20+ year plan today? Leadership is about energising a team already in place, and a natural human instinct in short term planning is personal planning; what will this plan mean to me? Long term strategic scenario planning removes any personal apprehension; ‘I won’t be around in 20 years, so this isn’t about me!’ When people start a new journey, however long it may seem, they always start roughly from where they are at that moment. So, thinking 20 years out will also provide your successor with a collective view of the much shorter term reality and what needs to be done today to be prepared for tomorrow.
They may be able to see 20 years out, and be able to build a range of scenarios with which to guide their organisation, making it more nimble, and better able to cope with the new world of dynamic global business. However, can they communicate that vision and can they bring their people with them? Imagine if Dr Martin Luther King had stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and uttered the phrase ‘I have a three year plan’. Having a vision, having scenarios, isn’t a dream. Any future leader who leads by looking in the past, or in the short term, will soon find themselves led by events, not their own strategic plan, and in the new world order that is simply unsustainable.