Leadership and the Preferred Future
Leadership is about the future. It’s that simple…and that difficult. Max DePree began his influential and elegant little book, Leadership Is an Art, by saying that “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality” (11). I would suggest that the most important element of the reality to be defined is the future. What future do you imagine? What future are you hoping for, working toward, dreaming of?
The future matters so much simply because it defines the present. A friend of mine – who is a remarkably capable pastoral leader – shares the same story each time she meets with a new group of people in her congregation. There were two boys, she says, each given a block of wood and a penknife. They both whittled away for an hour until one boy held in his hand a small wooden boat while the other had only a pile of wood chips. Then she asks a simple question: what made those boys different. And the folks she’s with always answer immediately: one boy had a plan, a vision for what he wanted to accomplish.
That’s the power of the future. It provides the plan, the goal, the vision toward which all present activity is directed. The future, in other words, provides direction. Think of it this way: there are two ways to travel. One is to set out and drive along, waiting to see what comes. We do this kind of thing at times to relax, perhaps to see the countryside on a Sunday afternoon. The other way to travel is to have a destination. And that destination shapes most every decision we make in order to reach it.
That’s the future. It presents a destination that reaches back to provide direction and purpose to the present.
And that’s the leader’s job. Not to determine that future. Not to demand a particular future, but to help a community determine its future and then to hold that vision of a future in front of the community – be it a family, a corporation, a volunteer agency, or a congregation – so that it can keep refining and aligning its present activity toward reaching that future. The future is what holds the present accountable. And that’s the leader’s job – to be mindful of the future, to hold the future in front of the community he or she leads and keep them accountable for living into it.
Nor is it just any future any more than it is any destination. There are lots of possible futures a community may strive toward, and it’s the leader’s job to help the community discern which is the preferred future. Which future is most life-giving? Which aligns most clearly with the purpose and gifts of the community? Which makes sense in relation to the community’s past, even while it stretches the community in new ways? Which future, if we may be so bold, do we believe God is calling us toward if we are to live into the promise God holds for each and all of us?
So there it is: a leader’s job is to help a community discern its preferred future – God’s preferred future – and hold that vision in front of it so that it can direct its present activities and energy toward realizing that future.
But it doesn’t end there. Because as clear and straightforward as this seems, there are many, many things that can get in the way of moving toward a preferred future. The first, of course, is helping a community discern and agree on that future. But even when you’ve done that difficult but important work, there are two particular scenarios that can be remarkably challenging.
The first is when everything is going well. When it feels like you’ve reached, or even almost reached, your preferred future. Because once you get close, it’s easy for a community to coast, to anticipate the destination, even to begin the celebration. Which is just the time to start discerning a new preferred future. What next challenge will exert sufficient force to keep the most talented members of your community engaged and the less talented or even problematic members focused? Think how many companies figured out exactly how to do their job or provide their service only to soon stagnate, taken over by more innovative groups hungry for a new future.
The other dangerous time for communities is when they experience crisis. A crisis diverts attention from the future precisely because it demands all of our attention in the present. Yet I would argue it is precisely during a crisis when it is most important for leaders to keep their community focused on the future. Crises, you see, demand so much energy that if you don’t come out on the other side closer to the preferred future you imagined, it will be harder than ever to get there. New patterns of activity, new priorities, new cultures develop during crises. If they don’t serve the preferred future they will have channeled you toward another future and made it incredibly difficult to adjust back.
Moreover, keeping a preferred future in mind can help set the priorities by which you navigate the immediate crisis. What resources are expended or conserved? What personnel are invested in or let go? Which path among several will you choose to come through the crisis? Most organizations choose the path of least resistance, giving little attention to whether it ends up leading to a preferred future of whether it just gets you out of the present crisis. Crises create tunnel vision and the future is the light at the end of the tunnel that can lead you beyond mere survival to a new period of flourishing.
The institution I serve is currently undergoing just such a crisis. It’s major, serious, painful. Persons’ jobs will be lost. Resources diverted. Programs cut. How will we make those decisions? By the standard of what is easiest, what is most popular, what is least painful in the moment or least controversial? Or will we make all of those decisions with an eye toward answering the question of what resources, people, and programs will we need to come closer to God’s preferred future.
That’s the question before us right now and, ultimately, before all of the organizations we lead at one time or another. Which is why the leader’s prayer should probably be just this simple: God give us the wisdom to discern your preferred future and the courage to act now to reach it.