If you spend much time reading leadership literature, you will most assuredly appreciate the amount of time and energy that is spent discussing vision as a prerequisite to effective leadership. According to modern leadership thought, a leader’s vision creates the framework for organizational strategy and the subsequent tactics utilized in manifesting the vision. Furthermore, most leadership experts consider the organization’s degree of success in crafting the vision to be a function of the leader’s ability to provide clarity with regard to the vision. In other words, an organization with a healthy culture will more often than not achieve the goals created by the vision as long as their leader provides the organization’s members with a clear picture of his or her vision.
But the question remains— Isn’t an illusion a vision?…….and if so, how do leaders determine if their vision is a realistic projection of future possibilities or simply an illusion with no chance of becoming reality. Think of the enormous disillusionment and loss of organizational energy, not to mention lost revenue, if a leader misrepresents a fictional illusion as an achievable vision for their organization. My point is this—clarity is important if the vision is achievable, however, no matter how clearly we can visualize an illusion it is at best a waste of our organization’s time and energy and at worst a very destructive pursuit.
The ability to distinguish between an illusion and an achievable vision is found in what has been described as a “future memory”. Although at first glance this term seems contradictory, it is, in fact, an accurate description of one’s ability to visualize a future with a degree of clarity so real that it is as if the vision existed in the present.
We create future memories unknowingly on a daily basis. For example, imagine you are running late to catch a plane for a business trip, and as you’re driving to the airport, a message on the radio alerts you about a traffic jam two exits ahead on the freeway. Realizing that the delay exists in your near future you begin to imagine alternative routes to avoid the traffic jam. You mentally say to yourself that if the problem exists in two exits, I will take the next exit and avoid the delay. You might even consider the possibility that you will miss your plane and begin making contingency plans that will get you to your meeting on time. Perhaps you will remember a recent advertisement for a new airline that flies to your meeting destination hourly, and you make a call to them from your car to see if there are seats available on their next flight. You may have even arranged for a driver to pick you up at the airport upon your arrival at your meeting destination, so you place a call to the driver to alert him of the possibility that you might miss your fight and inform him of your potential contingency plans.
The concept of a future memory was initially researched and presented by Dr. David Ingvar, the head of neurobiology at the University of Lund (Sweden) in 1985. His research indicated that the human brain is constantly attempting to make sense and order out of the future. As a future memory increases in clarity, we are able to begin developing “what if” scenarios which are similar to the previous example of the traffic jam—“If there is a future traffic jam, I will take an alternative route to my destination”.
Referring back to our initial question concerning illusions versus vision, I would suggest that a leader’s ability to distinguish between an illusion and a viable organizational vision is largely determined by their ability to fully utilize a future memory.
Arie de Geus, in his exceptional book, The Living Company, says this about a future memory:
“It (a future memory) apparently helps us to sort through the plethora of images and sensations coming into the brain, by assigning relevance to them. We perceive something as meaningful if it fits meaningfully with a memory that we have made of an anticipated future.
We will not perceive a signal from the outside world unless it is relevant to an option for the future that we have already worked out in our imaginations. The more memories of the future we develop, the more open and receptive we will be to signals from the outside world.
These (future memories) are not predictions. They do not pretend to tell what will happen. They are time paths into an anticipated future. Each combines a future hypothetical condition of the environment with an option for action.
Creating future time paths with regard to future memories is a fundamental responsibility of any organization’s leadership. An abdication of this leadership responsibility: dealing with the future can never be delegated. It is the uncomfortable component of the leader’s job.”
Another fundamental responsibility of leadership is to share the future memory with each member of the organization in order to promote collaboration. As members of the organization begin to visualize and share the future memory, a wider range of “what if” scenarios are created and discussed. Eventually, as contingencies to the future vision are identified and potential solutions to future problems are solved, a more predictable path to the desired future becomes clear. As organizations become more adept at utilizing future memories, they will selectively filter and collect pertinent current information that, without a future memory, may have gone unrecognized as being relevant to achieving the future vision.
Creating mutually shared future memories reduces the likelihood of chasing an illusionary vision because many of the potential obstacles to achieving the desired future have already been identified and potential solutions have been created. Finally, although no one can predict the future, we can surely utilize our future memory to increase the chance of successfully fulfilling our organizational vision.
Dr. Joel Small and Dr. Edwin McDonald, the founders of Line of Sight Coaching, are dental practitioners, authors, speakers and Business Leadership Coaches who work with healthcare professionals to help them build more successful practices so they can live the balanced life they seek.