Leadership: A Futurist Perspective | James W. Schreier, Ph.D., SPHR

The breakneck rate of innovations and the tsunami of technological advancements driven by artificial intelligence, esp., ChatGPT, signals that a futurist view of leadership is more important than ever.

Twenty-plus years ago, Joel Barker presented a perspective on leadership from his paradigm as a futurist.  Barker defined a leader as “Someone you choose to follow to a place you would not go by yourself.”   That place is the future.  He further recognized that a leader is someone who will “Find, Recognize, and Secure the Future.”

One area recognized by many, if not most, authorities on leadership is vision.  Crafting a clear, specific, and motivating vision is a critical responsibility.  However, there are additional areas where a “future focus” is equally important, as succinctly noted by Daniel Goleman (“Focus,” 2013):

For leaders to get results, they need all three kinds of focus.

A leader tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless. 

One blind to the world of others will be clueless.

Those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided.

Several years ago, I created, with Joel Barker, an important variation to a technique he’d created to monitor trends, innovations, and paradigm shifts.  It offers leaders simple steps “for ‘early spotting’ and monitoring the things we should be looking for.”

  • Monitoring Brings Awareness
  • Organizing Brings Clarity
  • Sharing Brings Engagement
  • Interrogating Brings Wisdom

It starts with a simple question: “What are important things you monitor as part of your work?”  It’s a somewhat narrow question that doesn’t open up the broader range of trends and innovations “we should be looking for.”  But it’s guaranteed to prove an early point.  If the participants in a workshop represent a diverse audience, two-three flip chart pages are quickly filled with topics.    Asking, “What about trends or innovations that might impact your business or your profession?” adds significantly to the list.  This can also be done individually for leadership coaching.

At this point, the need for a systematic approach to focus is obvious, and it comes from an easily recognized source.  Aviation radar is a critical tool for managing a multitude of different aircraft approaching.  It’s an excellent metaphor for creating a future-focused information system.

A Radar System

The advantage of a radar system for organizations, departments, or individuals is that it’s a flexible process for bringing focus to a list. A religious congregation set its sections to 1) Demographic trends, 2) Social media, 3) Membership, and 4) Programming as the major categories to be monitored. They set the rings on their radar based on priorities, simply: 1) Urgent, 2) High, 3) Medium, and 4) Low. A very realistic set of priorities is offered as 1) Adopt, 2) Trial, 3) Assess, and 4) Hold for technology (Thoughtworks, Inc.)

Approaching Speed

Today’s innovations and trends can appear at such a rapid rate that the opportunity to even understand them seems to pass before someone has seized the opportunity.  This demands two additional actions for leaders who recognize the importance of thinking about the future.

First, expand and extend!  The list that you’ve created is never fixed.  It changes constantly with items that need to be added and items that can be deleted.  Equally important, there is a need for sources that provide early, often just speculative, possibilities.

It is very valuable to note the approaching speed of an item placed on the radar.  There are, for example, trends that might be emerging and will move slowly and steadily over the next few years.   On the other hand, an innovation might appear, which instantly has a major impact on an organization.  The best example of this today, of course, is the rapid developments in AI, particularly ChatGPT.  The recognition of the speed with which all these changes seem to occur at a breakneck pace is critical for monitoring and seizing opportunities.

Three other elements can be added to the radar here.  One is noting the sources of information for a particular item; the second is deciding how often the radar needs to be checked.  If you stick to the application of radar in aviation, it’s constantly monitored, 24/7.  Does your radar need to be checked daily, weekly, monthly, or…?  The third is particularly important because of the multiple resources and options available today.  You may be subscribing to a source that provides daily updates in the form of e-mails or posts from the multitude of blogs and social media sites.  Managing these elements is critical to keeping your radar effective.

Organizing and sharing are two other important elements – but both share the element referred to concerning vision.  In one sense, the real challenge is evaluating and selecting from the many options.  Here, we’ll expand briefly on the final aspect: interrogating.

It’s important to look at trends or innovations through different lenses.

Recognition. For some items on your radar, simply recognizing it’s there – and monitoring for any changes, is enough. The changes may call for more intense interrogation or maybe even deletion from your radar. A common problem in today’s world with an overload of information is the reluctance to stop following something or change it to less frequent monitoring.

Impact. When something begins to impact you or your organization – or you can clearly see that it’s about to happen, your monitoring intensifies. It’s a good time to start collecting input from your team on “possibilities.” That’s what a leader who looks to the future does.

Interrogation. This is a formal process developed to examine a trend, innovation, or paradigm shift that you’ve identified as having a “possible” significant impact on your strategic goals. It can include key questions like:

  • Do you trust the data?
  • Who wins if this trend continues, or this innovation succeeds?
  • Who loses if this trend continues, or this innovation succeeds?
  • What does this mean for our strategic goals?

These ideas can be applied to more than just trends, innovations, and paradigm shifts.  A radar system can monitor competitors’ actions, proposed legislation, workplace issue, or any “thing we should be looking for.” 

A leader willing to look to the future doesn’t wait for the future to happen.  As noted above, a leader takes active steps “to find, recognize, and secure the future.”

James W. Schreier, Ph.D., SPHR, is a leadership and career coach, focusing on a positive approach using strengths and emotional intelligence.  As a management consultant specializing in management and leadership training, hiring and retention, organizational development, and organizational culture assessment, he focuses on experiential learning. 

Dr. Schreier has also served as the Director of Training for futurist Joel Barker’s Strategic Exploration Tools to enhance decision-making for leadership in an “every voice is heard” environment for creating visions and monitoring trends, innovations, and paradigm shifts.

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