Unique insights into how business leaders can meet the
challenges of balancing the demands of the present and the
future by remaining aware and by actively shaping the context
inside their organizations so as to mitigate the
disruptive effects of turbulent business environments.
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The Past and Its Legacies
I am an African. ... My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by the victories we earned from Isandhlwana to Khartoum, as Ethiopians and as Ashanti of Ghana, as Berbers of the desert. ... I am born of a people who would not tolerate oppression. ... I am an African. I am born of the peoples of the continent of Africa.
Thabo Mbeki, I Am an African speech (Cape Town, 8 May 1996, on the occasion of the passing of the Constitution of South Africa)
All humans need to understand their past, their roots, and their history so that they can develop a clear sense of who they are — their identity. Without a sense of identity, individuals are not sufficiently centred. They struggle to define their role in the present and approach the future without clarity and confidence. There is more than adequate research to support these assertions. What is necessary is to engage the past in order to understand the present and prepare for the future. Researchers in the field of societal culture have shown us the way with regard to how the past can influence the present and the future.
David Hackett Fisher prefaces his massive report on the study of how British cultural norms, transported to America since 1630 when the Puritans landed on American shores, survive to this day by making the strong assertion that empirical knowledge of the past is not merely useful but necessary to an understanding of our moral choices in the present. Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian historian and politician, writing in the sixteenth century, had observed that 'whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past: for human events ever resemble those of preceding times'.
Why must leaders engage the past as they prepare to take their organizations to the future? Here is the simple reality: the there and then legacies of the past have direct relevance to the here and now, and they play a large part in shaping the future. Why is this the case? All human beings are products of their environment. This environment includes the culture, experiences (particularly in the early stages of life), relationships with significant others (including parents, siblings, relatives and teachers), values that they absorbed and assimilated, and world views that became, imperceptibly, the filters through which they interpret everything they engage with. Much of this is good and beneficial stuff, but a great deal of legacy experiences and assumptions can influence present and future choices and decisions in ways that can be detrimental to the future of organizations.
The problem with the past is that it intrudes into the present and the future. Psychologists tell us that unresolved issues from the there and then can poison the present and the future. Marianne Williamson argues, for example, that if bitterness in our past is brought into the present, it then sabotages our future. It was Martin Luther King Jr., the iconic leader of the American civil rights movement, who, eschewing black revenge against former white slave owners, appealed to former slaves to pursue the path of reconciliation because as he put it in his own words, 'hate is too great a burden to carry'.
The important issue here is not to disown the past. To disown your past is to deny who you are, and to do that is to undermine your identity. Leaders cannot do that without just shunting problems into the future. What is required is to honestly confront the demons from the past so that one is not forever a prisoner of the past. In his speech entitled I Am an African at the inauguration of the new South African Constitution on 8 May 1996 in Cape Town, Thabo Mbeki (at that time, deputy to South African president Nelson Mandela) recounted how the new South Africa was a reflection of all its past — good and bad, black and white and other shades of colour, and wars and battles fought across the continent and in South Africa.
In my book Personal Crucibles, I shared my personal story of detention, torture, and deprivation when I was a political prisoner during Zimbabwe's War of Liberation and how I overcame my bitterness and freed myself from the debilitating burdens of anger and racial prejudice after my release from several years of detention without trial.
There are a number of problems that can catch up with us from the past. A few of these are listed below.
1.1. Rear-View-Mirror Driving: The Strategy Blinkers from the Past
Leaders who are excessively focused on the past can fall prey to this malady.
This is best captured in Figure 1.1 below, which depicts what happens when leaders focus on the past and are driven by a mindset that assumes that the future will be very much like the past.
In a VUCAH environment, the likelihood for bends in the road is much higher.
Rear-view-mirror driving is prevalent in the corporate sector, where I witness CEOs and their teams approaching the future as if it were an extension of the past. This kind of tunnel vision can cause corporate leaders to be trapped in their strategic planning mode where multi-year strategic plans are rolled out periodically without sufficient critical thinking. Such plans are usually informed and driven by certain assumptions with regard to the anticipated state of the operating environment, in particular, with reference to key parameters, such as expected economic growth, exchange rates, inflation, consumer demand as well as the identified key risks in the environment. Almost all organizations engage in this process. There is nothing wrong with this. The problem, however, arises when organizations fall into the trap of the so-called pro-forma disease, where the strategic plans assume that the future will be very much a continuation of the past. This focus on the past can cause organizations to develop strategic blind spots, which make them susceptible to ambushes as they fail to anticipate threats.
One sees organizations engaged in so-called strategic planning, which in reality is no more than a rehashing of previous plans with a few macro and micro assumptions tweaked to give a new look to the numbers. I have often been invited to attend strategic planning sessions, only to see CEOs and CFOs going straight into the projected numbers for the next three or five years. At that stage, part of me wants to scream, 'Stop! That is not strategic planning.' Anyone can give me the numbers. That is not the problem. The real challenge is one of strategic thinking.
Do the hard work. Think! Don't close too soon. Don't show us the numbers yet! One of my professors on leadership used to warn us, 'Stay loose until rigor counts.' The numbers represent rigor. Don't go there too soon. Explore the options and possibilities first. Look at past performance and trends, but always realise that in a volatile and turbulent world, the past is increasingly becoming a less reliable predictor of the future.
Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew MacAfee refer to the second half of the chessboard, where things move at an exponential pace, representing serious discontinuities from the past. The time has come to challenge Machiavelli's assertion. The past is no longer a reliable predictor of the future.
1.2 The Curse of Past Success
Past successes can make leaders blind to emerging threats as well as to their responsibility for the future. This can happen to any of us. Our successes can create in us a sense of invincibility. Leaders can easily find themselves frequently regaling their captive audiences about their past glories, the battles they fought, the injustices they suffered, the enemies they vanquished, and the battle scars they have. There is a thin line between doing this and sidelining the future. Scant attention is paid to the future. It is as if life has already been lived and the generations to come simply have to copy the past in order to move forward.
The problem with this kind of narrative is that it is counterproductive in a number of respects. It allocates attention disproportionately to the past, while the beckoning future is left unattended. It seduces leaders to focus on past competencies that are no longer relevant for the challenges of the future. It leads leaders into denial — denial of the current and future realities — and, fundamentally, traps leaders into a non-learning mode, driven by a false sense of security and invincibility based on past successes. This can cause leaders to develop minds that are closed off to alternative perspectives. Worse still, past success can cause massive ego inflation for leaders, which is the surest way for a leader to lose his or her way.
In his book Ego Is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday describes ego as an unhealthy belief in our own importance, arrogance, and self-centred ambition. The past then can be our worst enemy. As some sage once observed, many successful people and organizations forget that today's peacock is tomorrow's feather duster.
1.3 The Impact of Past Calamities
Resilience is often defined as the capacity to bounce back from failure or setbacks. Deeply etched into the psyche of individuals, organizations, and indeed, nations are the lessons they have learnt from past traumatic experiences or critical incidences, such as defeat in war, subjugation, or other existential threats. The debilitating effects of such catastrophic setbacks need to be overcome and transformed into sources of strength and resilience if an individual, an organization, or a nation are to move forward and escape cycles of despair and self-sabotage.
In his book The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel, Uri Bar-Joseph makes reference to a longstanding commitment or belief among the Jews that each generation must see themselves as carrying the same responsibilities that the biblical Jewish leader Moses and his people carried when they crossed the Red Sea from Egypt more than three thousand years ago! As Jewish children recite the Torah, the fundamental tenets of the Jews, beliefs rooted in ancient biblical texts are passed on from generation to generation! Many of the world's religions — which collectively have a very large impact on how individuals, organizations, and nations manage their affairs — represent a powerful transmission mechanism by which the past guides the future.
In his drama-filled book Thirteen Days in September: The Dramatic Story of the Struggle for Peace, Lawrence Wright narrates just how deeply three thousand years of history intruded into the negotiations between Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt, at the Camp David peace talks brokered by US president Jimmy Carter in September 1978. Indeed, sometimes — as the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer has observed — it is loss which teaches us the worth of things. Loss, particularly deep loss and deprivation in the past, can become a powerful reminder of what we must preserve so as to avoid sliding back to an unwanted past. This experience can have deep ramifications for organizational and individual reactions to certain situations. Taking time to appreciate and understand past experiences is useful in understanding the present and can have relevance in managing change in organizations.
Psychologists who approach change from a psychodynamic perspective refer to recurring problems in individuals who belong to families with a traumatic past. They cite many instances when individuals from such families get caught up in cycles of repeating a past traumatic experience (such as suicide in the family) or exhibiting behaviour patterns that indicate the individual's desire to repair the perceived damage or injury caused by the past traumatic event despite the fact that the event in question may have happened generations earlier.
The leadership challenge is to get followers to draw the right lessons from the crucibles of the past while helping followers to abandon unhelpful and destructive beliefs from the past — beliefs that have the potential to impair the present and the future welfare of the individual or the organization. The ability to take time to understand the past for the purpose of learning from it is a key leadership capability. This requires keen observation, attentive listening, deep reflection, and the ability to draw the right strands from the past for deployment in the service of the future.
1.4 Path Dependency
The Financial Times has defined path dependency as 'the idea that decisions we are faced with depend on past knowledge trajectory and decisions made, and are thus limited by the current competence base'. This has important implications on how leaders make current decisions, how they plan, and how they make choices. One of the key competencies expected of leadership is the ability to recognize threats and opportunities and to be able to develop options to respond to both. Now, according to the path dependency theory, it turns out that the competencies that leaders have built up in the past will define how they respond to present challenges and opportunities. In other words, where we are coming from influences the options we develop and the choices we make. Our history matters — a lot.
This perspective suggests that as we develop leaders for the future, we have to focus on inculcating critical-thinking skills that will enable them to discover strategies and options through a process of questioning, challenging, and imagination. To blindly follow tried and tested strategies from the past will no longer suffice in a future that is so radically different from the past.
The Demands and Seductions of the Present
We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future.
Pierre-Simon Laplace (1814)
While Laplace — the French mathematician and philosopher — was referring to the physical world, it is undeniable that there are many people today who hold the same belief with regard to the state of individuals, organizations, and nations. This appearance of predictability reduces uncertainty for them as it simplifies their world view into neat linear causality along the lines that things are today because of what they were yesterday and they will be tomorrow because of what they are today. Perhaps it is for this reason why most people always seem to be a lot happier doing what they are doing now than with concerning themselves with changes that they ought to be implementing as a way of adapting to the emerging future.
This fixation with being busy maintaining the status quo hides, in my view, a darker side. It seems to me that the philosophy that one must take each day as it comes and focus only on living for the moment or doing what one can only do now contains seeds of both fatalism and determinism. The thought process that I often encounter in many circles goes something along these lines: The future is basically unknown and unknowable. As such, it is foolhardy to try to predict and plan for the future. Do your best today, and tomorrow will take care of itself. So the argument goes.
I don't buy this line of thinking. I know that it is not possible to predict the future with 100 per cent accuracy. But this does not in any way remove or diminish the responsibility of organizational leaders to invest resources in observing, deciphering, collating, and mapping trends and signals that indicate how the future will unfold. This anticipatory role of leadership should not be made secondary to the demands of the present. While it is true that our desire to see into the future exceeds our grasp, the reality is that an organization that lives entirely in the present is unlikely to be around for too long. There are demands generated by pressures from dealing with the present. From experience, I offer a few caveats regarding how to deal with the paradoxes of the present.
2.1 Beware of the False Dichotomy between Operational Issues and Strategic Issues
My experience is that trying to strike the right balance between the present and the future is not an easy matter for corporate leaders. One is always involved in a delicate juggling act. In his book The Strategy Paradox, Michael Raynor attempts to deal with the competing demands of the present and the future. His mechanism for allocating responsibilities and accountability for short-term issues and long-term issues is to suggest that matters to do with short-term commitments of an operational nature ought to be dealt with by people at the lower hierarchical levels, while matters to do with managing uncertainty and long-term risks and opportunities are assigned to higher levels in the organization.
According to Raynor, past performance of the organization can generate two kinds of anxieties. If performance has been good, then stakeholders have reasonable expectations of continued good performance. This generates pressures for organizational leaders. If performance has been disappointing in the past, the legitimate expectation of stakeholders is for the trend to be reversed and for performance gaps to be closed. In either case, the result is that certain commitments have to be made to either sustain good performance or reverse an unacceptable performance trend.
Excerpted from "Leading for the Future"
Copyright © 2017 Joe Mutizwa.
Excerpted by permission of Partridge Africa.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I: Leading Strategy across Three Time Horizons,
Chapter 1 The Past and Its Legacies, 1,
Chapter 2 The Demands and Seductions of the Present, 8,
Chapter 3 The Challenges of the Emerging Future, 18,
Part II: The Corporate Dashboard and How It Is Evolving,
Chapter 4 Creating Shareholder Value, 51,
Chapter 5 Business Model Viability, 58,
Chapter 6 Treating People with Humanness, 66,
Chapter 7 Creating Social Value, 71,
Part III: Leaders as Context Shapers,
Chapter 8 Appreciating the Global VUCAH Context, 84,
Chapter 9 Understanding the Cultural Context, 90,
Chapter 10 Shaping the Context inside the Organization, 113,
Chapter 11 Shaping the Organization's Transactional Context, 128,
Part IV: Execution — the Bridge to the Future,
Chapter 12 The Seven Disciplines of Superior Execution, 137,
Part V: Conclusion,
Chapter 13 The Essential Leadership Instincts for the Future, 155,
About the Author, 163,