Leadership: Inventing the Future Now

In this unprecedented downturn, many leaders are focused only on survival, but rebounds belong to the ready

What is your definition of leadership?—Pat Campbell, Belfast, Ireland

You ask a timeless question—which has perhaps never been more timely. People in your country, in ours, and all around the world today are confused, frightened, and angry; many feel deeply betrayed by the institutions and individuals they trusted to protect and guide their lives and livelihoods. They're wondering—like you, it appears—what kind of leadership will get us out of the mess we're in, both in government and business.

Leaders, too, are feeling the burden of these unprecedented times. Like the rest of us, the vast majority did not see the collapse coming or anticipate its scale, and few know when it will end. Indeed, all that most leaders know for sure right now is that confidence in authority is at a generational low and that the margin for managerial error has evaporated.

So, to your question: What is leadership under these circumstances?

The first answer is that it's the same as always, only in overdrive. Leaders need to exude positive energy. Define vision. Build great teams. Care. Reward. Teach. Decide. Innovate. Execute.

Some things never change. But if you're running a team, division, or company right now, there's one defining aspect of leadership that you cannot, must not, neglect in the craziness and morass. Inventing the future.

Short-Term Shortsightedness

In normal times, the central challenge of leadership is balancing your organization's short- and long-term needs. Everyone knows that. You manage people, sales, and costs to hit immediate financial commitments, and you simultaneously invest in future projects to capture market trends and ensure a going concern. As we've characterized it before, this essential paradox of leadership is the ability to do and dream at the same time.

Today, however, most managers are only doing. They're fixated on the short term. We understand; they have to be, for sheer survival. They're reducing staff, slashing costs, and squeezing productivity. They're sweating the details like never before and pushing people to find the innovative killer app that could save the organization. Moreover, leaders are turning to their people—most of whom are already feeling frantic about job security—and asking for redoubled intensity. "Work faster, harder, and smarter," they're saying, "or it could be that none of us will be here tomorrow."

But that takes "tomorrow" for granted; too many leaders are neglecting to define and create it.

Why? Partly, it's human nature. When you're drowning, you're not thinking about what to put in the picnic basket for your next trip to the beach. You're thinking, "Kick, kick, kick."

But another part of the problem is pure conflict avoidance. Leaders right now can feel in their bones how their people will react to talk of long-term planning. "How can you be spending on blue-sky B.S. when you're laying off Joe and Mary, and cutting back our benefits?" they'll demand to know.

Preparing for Better Times

Look, in a time of drastic cutbacks, spending money on anything can set off a deafening sound and fury. But don't let the noise overwhelm you. In fact, try to break through it to get your people to listen as you talk about down-the-road ideas.

The future you describe will need to be exciting and promising to overcome organizational fear and cynicism. You just have to help people understand that someday the company will be different—and better—with everyone's determination and buy-in.

We're definitely not suggesting that leaders today should try to balance short- and long-term needs 50-50. In this environment, that's overkill. But if you're a leader putting 100% of yourself into the present, you could certainly shift that to something like 75% or 80% and throw some time and energy into figuring out what your company's future could and should look like, and galvanizing your people to create it with you.

When the upturn arrives—in a year or two or three—the business landscape will be brand new. There will be fewer competitors and perhaps more opportunity for those companies that are primed and ready to seize it. So remember, inventing the future is one crucial definition of leadership. The true leaders of 2009 ultimately will be known when that future arrives.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.