WHITE PAPER

 - FAR-SIGHTED LEADERSHIP

The following white paper is a distillation of a lifetime’s work helping people to recognise and meet the demands of working in businesses, public services, and government bodies. Most of my career has been spent trying to define — and find ways of developing — the skills, experience, and mental furniture necessary for successful leadership and management. Easily, the most challenging assignments have been in situations where the rules of the game were changing, or where they needed to be changed and it had fallen to my colleagues and me to devise new solutions to unfamiliar problems.

 

Among the by-products of these activities are what human resource professionals recognise as descriptions of management competencies. Focussing on navigating through uncharted waters means that I have always tried to direct people’s attention towards the tools they will need to meet tomorrow’s challenges. Working with people worried about the survival of life as they value it means I have, however, become less and less tolerant of the Anglo-Saxon preference for measuring things over understanding them.

 

Maybe every generation speculates that theirs represents the end of the golden weather. But the world – and especially the Western world – does seem to be facing an unusually comprehensive basket of complex challenges: economic, social, cultural, environmental, generational, and political. It’s not always clear whose hands have to move which levers in what directions for these challenges to be overcome. A number of respected commentators have recently reminded us how quickly (fifty years, give or take a decade) the most sophisticated economies have collapsed. On some of the crucial issues — global warming, youth unemployment, and bad businesses too big to fail — our resources are already depleted and our options foreshortened.

 

I believe that the time is ripe for a fresh analysis of the skills that responsible people — leaders and managers in business and government — must bring to the tasks ahead. I’ve called this analysis The Far-Sighted Leader. Why Far-Sighted? Because, when we face disruptions and discontinuities, as I believe we do, it is even more important to be able to do as the Duke of Wellington said and ‘see what’s on the other side of the hill.’ We cannot meet tomorrow’s demands with yesterday’s competences.
I offer this analysis as one building block in what I hope will be an enduring project to ensure that we can control our future.

 

Far-Sighted leadership involves:

Scenario Building ability: the capacity to generate multiple possible outcomes from the current situation. These outcomes should each be reasonably coherent, and if possible, their relative probabilities should be estimated.

 

(The direct analogy is with chess. After seven moves, there are more than 10 million possible positions; there are forty possible positions after just two moves. Good chess players develop ways of encoding what they see on the board — typically, they can remember legitimate positions, but do no better than chance when shown a random unlawful scatter).

 

The skill of scenario building is buttressed by two types of scanning at the extremes, viz:

 

Sensitivity to Danger: as various scenarios unfold, and/or new information presents itself, this is the capacity to predict and/or detect the circumstances that are likely to cause catastrophic failure or at least to carry an unacceptable downside risk.

 

(This requires a detachment from one’s own optimism, which can be difficult when pursuing an attractive goal. At the very least, it involves envisaging the graceful failure mode when developing scenarios, but when properly developed, one confronts the brutal facts wherever and whenever they appear).

 

Alive to Opportunity: with unfolding scenarios and/or new information, the capacity to predict when circumstances will offer quantitative or qualitative advances in what is possible.

 

(This echoes the original definition of an entrepreneur as one who moves resources from areas of low productivity to areas of high productivity).

 

When Scenario Building, Sensitivity to Danger, and Alive to Opportunity are all well-developed, one is alert to the situations where what is needed is more of the same, or when what is needed is something different. One is also alert for Black Swans . Therefore, it can be said that one has a good sense of timing —a skill which otherwise is difficult to analyse.

 

These three attributes characterise far-sighted information-gathering. It may sometimes appear to have a disturbingly dispassionate quality, as with the trader who forward-bought potatoes within minutes of hearing about Chernobyl.

 

The next two attributes distinguish the armchair general/Monday morning quarterback from the person who sets out to make a difference to the world:

 

Judgement: the ability and willingness to decide on a course of action. It is important to be able to articulate — and therefore, to defend and/or negotiate — a coherent frame of reference underlying one’s judgements; it is also important to be aware of, and to seek to transcend, the limits of bounded rationality.

 

(This recognises that human affairs cannot be decided purely by logic; almost every situation contains competing priorities as well as imperfect information. However, having a coherent framework is the first step in being able to negotiate frameworks; this is an essential attribute of mature far-sightedness).

 

Drive for Results: the intrinsic need to make a difference, coupled with the energy to deliver the chosen result.

 

(The combination of Judgement and Drive for Results underlies the delivery of extraordinary results).

 

Think of the first three attributes as the sail, and the latter two as the rudder. Both are necessary for the journey. But the journey is not made in a void; there is always a context. When the context is a business, an enterprise, or an institution, one needs local knowledge and wider perspectives:

 

Local Knowledge: the aptitudes needed to fulfil one’s role in the organisation, coupled with sensitivity to the context (social, political, economic, structural, etc.) influencing perceived success.

 

(Aptitudes: technical/specialist skills, financial skills, communication and interpersonal skills; how these skills are exercised is modified by the choices, demands, and constraints implicit – or explicit – in the organisation’s culture).

 

Wider perspective: regular scanning of the environment (social, political, economic, etc.) in which the organisation makes its living. This particularly includes any changes in the opportunities and priorities of the organisation’s stakeholders (owners, employees, customers, etc.) together with changes in the wider ecosystem that are likely to affect the organisation’s equilibrium.

 

(This leads, inter alia, to a healthy scepticism about traditional metrics as exemplified by the manufacturer of lock-gate furniture whose market share kept increasing until he became insolvent. It also implies the ability to detect when the means to an end become the end in itself).

 

The narrative so far is silent regarding the differences between vice and virtue; a dispassionate analysis that pays due regard to the price of dependence on power might remain silent . Notwithstanding the occasional difficulties implicit in describing what is true, just, and lovely, the ideal is:

 

Honest, Ethical, and Trustworthy: commitment to truthfulness and openness, and to fairness and justice; from these flow responsibility and accountability.

 

Finally, and because no man is an island entire unto itself:

 

Power to Inspire: the skill of energising and strengthening other people in the achievement of shared goals. This implies an internal locus of control and the ability to manage the impression one creates (especially in times of doubt or crisis). It also implies the ability to assess and develop other people’s talents, capabilities, and potential.

 

1 The term ‘Black Swan’ (Nicholas Taleb) summarises his observation that we are conditioned to focus on the average/mean/normal, and that we are unreasonably surprised by the inevitability of the unexpected.

2 ‘If you are doing something wrong, you’ll probably do it badly. (Robert Heller).