Nature has time on her side. Environments and ecosystems continually change and evolve. What happens in the present is connected to the past and the future is shaped by what is happening in the present.
What nature does and how it adapts is influenced by rich and robust feedback loops. Different feedback loops with different criteria show up when success is defined over the long-term instead of just the short-term. Long-term thinking extends the time horizon beyond quarterly profits and the next election cycle. This can also shift decision-making from solely short-term gain to long-term investment based on the higher purpose of the organization, which is to thrive over time.
Connecting Streams of Events Through Time
In organizations, we see time horizons differently than nature. We think events and problems are discrete. Each problem is separate from another. As our world becomes more complex, this habit creates problems for organizations. When we learn to connect time between the past, present and into the future, we see events as streams flowing through time. We understand that the ways we solve problems in the past create the agenda for current problems; how we solve current problems creates the agenda of problems in the future.
For example, if a CEO serves a short-term goal or problem in a way that diminishes trust with his employees, the next time a big problem needs to be solved, it will be more difficult to gain active cooperation because less trust exists in the organization.
Organizational defaults focus on short-term time horizons. If the goal is to maximize profits, the focus and the measure is on the accumulation of profit. This serves the short-term, but there may be unexamined consequences over time. For example, if a company raises prices and disproportionately distributes profits, it can weaken the buying power of its customers and, over time, cause the company to be less resilient.
When we extend our time horizon, leadership starts to define success differently. An example of where both short and long-term time horizons are being considered is the field of investment. Financial investment strategies have now designed mutual funds that optimize both short and long-term investments. They balance the mix of investments to extend beyond short-term profit to include stocks that will provide long-term returns.
Thinking Long-Term and the Implications for Leadership
Long-term thinking and action increase the number of variables that an organization needs to consider in making decisions. One company shifted the way they disposed of waste from dumping it into a river that met the federal regulations, to raising the company’s standards and eliminating harmful waste in a way that didn’t hurt the environment or community. Even though it cost more to make this shift, the company’s focus wasn’t just on profit. The organization chose to reduce profit to ensure a higher quality of water for the people downstream. Adding water quality as a criteria shifts the feedback loop to water quality as a measure of success as well as profit.
Long-term thinking also shifts our focus from a narrow range of factors to the entire system. Over time things don’t stay in one place, events in an open and connected system start affecting other things. If everyone does the minimum, the emergent pattern can be devastating for the larger system.
For example, if we choose to deny climate change because it disrupts the business model of the oil and gas industry, the short-term result is stability in those industries’ employment and the economy. The long-term time horizon would look at the risk of air quality, climate disruptions, rising water levels, increased natural disasters, and the social health and economic impact for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. When a long-term time view becomes part of a leader’s thinking, the health of future generations and the resilience of ecological systems become a meaningful criterion in addition to profit.
I recently was asked what I thought the SOUL of leadership was. After giving it much thought and being influenced by a long-term view, I concluded that it the soul of leadership is about the legacy that the leader’s actions create over time. Can we say that our actions create conditions conducive to the life of future generations? If we can say yes to this question, we are leading from the soul of leadership.
Dr. Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (available for purchase September 4, 2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: www.kathleenallen.net