What do Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Steve Jobs have in common? All three are recognized as visionary leaders. They looked past the conventional wisdom and set out to create a different and better world, but they did not do it on their own. They inspired others to join them on their transformative journey. Mark Johnson and Josh Suskewicz, the authors of the book Lead from the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking Into Breakthrough Growth, studied visionary leaders and learned from them how to "develop actionable views of their organizations' best possible futures."
First, the authors illustrate the type of leaders who are not visionaries. These leaders are preoccupied with sustaining and efficiency improvements. They build their long-term strategy on the way the markets work today.
Leaders who are not visionaries spend most of their time in meetings going through profit and loss reviews, marketing reviews, business plan reviews, and human resources reviews. The decisions they make in those meetings are routine in nature and have a short-term impact.
Johnson and Suskewicz argue that leaders have to think about the future in a systematic way if they want to realize the opportunities and threats that may lie ahead. The authors propose developing future-back visions built on a strong belief that we can shape the future for the better. The process starts with imagining the organization's future and how we can actively shape it to allow the organization to thrive over the long term. Under the authors' approach, company leaders can be proactive and identify challenges and opportunities early to enable proper planning and business execution.
Even visionary leaders have to deal with day-to-day questions and core growth efforts. Johnson and Suskewicz find that spending 10 to 20 percent of the leader's time on the long-term vision is sufficient. Integrating that vision with leadership, innovation, strategy, and culture allows organizations to own their future.
Whether organizations succeed in reaching their long-term vision has a lot to do with the leaders' mindset. Those who have present-forward thinking predicated on routine, day-to-day business management will have limited success. Those leaders who require future-back thinking from their team by looking five to ten years out and developing milestones throughout the ten years will have greater success. As Soren Kierkegaard said, "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards."
Future-back thinking is challenging for many leaders, forcing them to unlearn years' worth of lessons that taught them to focus on the short term. Johnson and Suskewicz say that 99.9 percent of organizations focus on today. Scott Cook, the cofounder of Intuit, provides an example of a backward system most companies follow because they do not have future-back thinking. Most incentive systems pay for last year's successes, whereas "investors invest for a company's future performance." Cook's answer to staying relevant in today's environment is constant innovation throughout the enterprise.
Another way of understanding future-back thinking is by remembering Steve Job's quote, "You can't connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards." Present-forward thinking relies on existing knowledge, rules, and data. In contrast, future-back thinkers have limited initial knowledge and make many assumptions in order to "discover what could be true." They develop a new vision of what an organization can become in the markets of the future.