Exploring the Future: What Leaders Need to Learn

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Sitting with two of my kids the other day I asked them, “so what can we learn from the great Explorers of the past?” – a probing question fueled by something I was reading at the time. “Like the guys who sailed around?” responded one of the Saplings … (this is what I get for the small fortune paid in educational fees – enough I’m sure to have bought a small island somewhere!). It was a despairing thought but one I suspect is not uncommon for most parents at some or other point along the way.

Upon elaborating and expanding on the narrow  understanding of the term ‘explorer’ to one that now embraced mountains, the Poles, forests, rivers, ocean depths and outer space – basically, anywhere where someone has been bold enough to venture where few have previously gone, my question yielded the following concise responses: “Press on” said the One with the narrow definition. An answer, which I might add was accompanied with a self-congratulatory look that believed his was the insightful, answer for which I was looking! “Stay indoors” offered the other Genius before going back to whatever it was she was doing!

Press on – stay indoors. Two extremes that, given the source, are deserving of deeper psych-analysis – but this isn’t the time or place for such indulgence.


It occurred to me that they are also stances that could equally describe one’s approach to facing the future and navigating the uncertainty that 2012 and beyond represents. Certainty is not a commodity that any leader has when it comes to leading into the future and perhaps there are lessons that leaders can learn from the Explorers of old when it comes to engaging in the tumultuous uncertainty that is the future. General Colin Powell was once quoted as saying,” If you can tell me with a hundred percent certainty that we are going to be bombed, it is too late for me to do anything about it”.

Smart leaders know they have to look far into the future if they are to lead well. Smart leaders are not afraid of the work this entails and whilst they are willing to act decisively, they are also willing to be wrong in doing so. Smart leaders know for a certainty that there can be no certainty when preparing for the unknown – for the future. And they plan accordingly.

In his book, Futuring: The Exploration of the Future, Edward Cornish provides seven lessons that we can take from the great explorers. They are lessons that leaders would do well to pause and think about at the onset of 2012.

1.    Prepare for what you will face in the future.
2.    Anticipate future needs.
3.    Use poor information when necessary (remember there is no ‘tried and tested’ when it come to the future!)
4.    Expect the unexpected.
5.    Think long term as well as short term.
6.    Dream productively.
7.    Learn from your predecessors.

Each of these points provides a helpful agenda for any leader serious about leading into the future, for any leader who understands leadership as an exploration.

As a leader, you face both transformational and revolutionary challenges from within and without the environment in which you lead. Turbulence is the new norm and to expect any different is to deny reality. Smart leaders work hard to understand the trends and patterns that are shaping the future, understanding that these trends and patterns are redefining and reshaping the very world in which they lead. In such a dynamic context the past offers little comfort and yields even fewer answers. Increased mobility, globalization, interlinked economies, technological breakthroughs, environmental meltdown are just some of the tangible forces conspiring to rewriting our view of tomorrow.

Smart leaders use the discipline of scenarios to mentally and emotionally prepare and get fit for the future. As fitness levels increase so does the ability to realistically adapt to the shifting demands of leadership. Leaders who engage in such work are less likely to become prisoners of the past. Undertaking such work will lead to the development of an essential quality of effective leadership – that of adaptive intelligence; without which, successfully navigating the future will be impossible. The sad thing is that I have encountered many a leader who is unwittingly held captive by the past – a past dressed up and disguised as, experience, success, tradition, routine, the known, policy, the way things are…and so I could go on but I think you get what I mean.

It is so easy to become such a leader and working at avoiding such a pitfall, well that is another story altogether. But perhaps a good place to start would be to learn the lessons on offer from those bold enough to have ventured where few had gone before. And maybe you should consider replacing that leadership title on your office door (if you still have one!) to simply state, ‘Explorer’…or if you like, keep the ‘CEO’ tag but substitute ‘Executive’ with, ‘Explorer’!

If nothing else it will serve as a springboard to some potentially great conversations!

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