The Need for Looking Ahead

In a recent global CEO survey by McKinsey and Company, the need for forward-looking and visionary top officers – during and after a crisis – was reinforced.

  • 48% of executives rank presenting an inspiring vision as the most important individual leadership behavior during a crisis;
  • 45% rank it as most important after a crisis.
  • 42% selected inspirational leadership and clear direction—articulating where the company is heading and how to get there—making it the top organizational capability for managing performance, during a crisis
  • 39% selected inspirational leadership and clear direction after a crisis

Whether as a desired individual leader characteristic or an organization capability, vision is important. Yet at the same time Gallup reported that that only 22 percent of employees believe that their leaders have a clear direction for the organization.

What is missing is the percentage of employees who believe that inspirational leadership, inspiring vision, or clear direction is a “most important” leadership behavior.

From our 30 plus years of ongoing research on characteristics most looked for in leaders (from authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner), we have found those lower in an organization do not select “Forward-looking” nearly as often as do higher level managers.  Might this create a bit of a riff in a company? Is it possible that the workers could view senior leaders as sitting in the ivory tower pontificating on the future when they should be tending to the immediate messes of today?

Fair enough. But I would offer that a number of today’s messes have occurred because leadership a few years back was not looking forward, and thus never saw the messes coming.

Frankly, it is easier to deal with a mess (after some allowable whining and complaining about it), than it is to attempt to head it off before it can occur. When looking forward, leaders see possibilities, not sure things. So, they open themselves up to the criticism of Monday morning quarterbacking, when the future does not pan out as they envisioned. But we still need people to take those looks. Without them, we will simply continue to encounter more unexpected surprises, which inevitably turn into more messes.

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