A leader's foresight

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A leader’s foresight

August 24, 2015 -

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is working feverishly to make preparations for the coming winter. As the school year begins and summer comes to a close, it’s hard to believe, but we’re not far from winter’s cold air. Last year, the MBTA was brought to its knees by the harsh winter storms that blanketed much of the country under heavy snow, and state officials have vowed to update old trains, replace faulty tracking, and improve de-icing abilities. It’s hard to imagine now, but it won’t be long before the snow comes.

We are seasonal, rhythm-based creatures. Our heart beats at a steady rhythm. Our gait follows a certain cadence. We eat at the same general times each day. All of this shows how much we are impacted by rhythms.

In times past, when agriculture used to be at the center of society, more people were in tune with the seasonal rhythms of fall, winter, spring and summer, but as we’ve progressed into the information age, many of us have lost touch with these basic seasonal rhythms. Most of our work has moved inside, and the more insulated we have become to the elements, the more we perceive our mastery over it. Until a storm shuts an entire city down, that is.

In contemporary culture it can become all too easy to fall into a reactive posture of listless idling. Reinforced by our lack of proximity to the elements, this mindset is something you fall into when you get stuck in your routine. Instead of noticing details, everything becomes vague. You may still get everything done, but what is the quality of your work?

One of the roles seasonal rhythms play in our lives is to help remind us how little we control. They also remind us, though, that collapsing into fatalism is a real possibility. How do we find the balance between thinking we control everything and thinking we have no power to do anything?

Winter is coming. In times past, this would have meant that we would all be chopping extra wood in the coming weeks, storing extra provisions so that we could last through the bitter winter months. But even though we have central heating and year-round supermarkets, we still need to learn how to plan and prepare for the future.

Good leaders have their eye on the horizon. They are constantly surveying the scene around them and trying to decipher how external forces will have an impact on their internal operations. This is what is known as foresight, and while it may popularly be understood more as decoding the future, it’s actually something much more down to earth. Larry Spears, in a 2010 article in The Journal of Virtues & Leadership, defined foresight this way:

“Closely related to conceptualization, the ability to foresee the likely outcome of a situation is hard to define, but easier to identify. One knows foresight when one experiences it. Foresight is a characteristic that enables the servant leader to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision for the future. It is also deeply rooted within the intuitive mind. Foresight remains a largely unexplored area in leadership studies, but one most deserving of careful attention.”

Taking the example of the MBTA’s preparations for the coming winter, it’s wise for all leaders to exercise foresight in strategic planning.

When was the last time you sat down with your team and thought through coming obstacles and challenges in your industry? While the MBTA knows it has snow coming every winter, you may not know the exact when and what of your challenges, but that does not mean you cannot anticipate challenges as they come your way.

In leadership, it’s easy to get stuck in a perpetual cycle of blasé. We need seasonal shifts to remind us to shift our thinking as well. These mental pivot points are vital to our overall ability to be good stewards of the organizations and people God has put in our care. What are the challenges coming your way? How can you and your team meet them creatively and faithfully? How can you help inspire those you lead to grow in the skill of foresight?

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