#Leadership and Time

How do good leaders think about time? I’m not talking about time management, or about speed to market. I’m talking about how we frame our decisions. Good leaders use the past, the present and the future in very specific ways to develop a strategic vision for their organization, or nation.

Our relationship with time – whether we are oriented to the past, the present or the future, can have a profound, often unconscious effect on the way we see things. For example, if we see the past as a golden era, we might be making decisions that are designed to revive bygone days. If we see the future as some sort of Jetsons technological utopia, we might pursue that with all of our energy.

Each of the time perspectives has pros and cons.  Too much focus on the present can mean that an organization is unprepared to meet foreseeable future challenges. Too much focus on the future could mean that existing problems that threaten organizational success are being ignored. Too much focus on the past means that the organization might miss critical changes in the external environment that threaten the viability of the organization.

Good leaders try to balance the past, present and future. The past represents the organization’s heritage and culture which are not easily changed. It is important to value and respect heritage, to reassure people who their historical values matter. Being aware of the present, its challenges and successes is essential to the survival of an organization. At the same time, a good leader needs to have an eye on the future – where is the environment shifting? What does that mean for the long-term success of the organization.

All too often leaders get stuck in one time frame – the visionary often gets stuck in the future, the task oriented individual gets caught in the present and the organizational historian gets caught protecting an organization’s heritage. In all cases, this can be detrimental to organizational survival.

So how do you diagnose a bad case of time-stuck? Just think about how much time your team spends on the past, present and future.  If you’re spending more than 50% of your time in one “time frame”, you might be in trouble. But that is just a rule of thumb. If the organization is about to go under, perhaps more than 50% of your time on the present makes sense. But then again, if you’re about to go under, more than 50% of your time on the past or future might be bad. It’s more about judgement and being aware of how much time you are spending on each time frame, that make sense for your current situation is what is important. When you and your team sense that things are out of whack, it’s time to have a discussion.

So how much time to you spend on the past, present and future? Is the balance right for you? for your organization?  I’d love to hear from you.


3 replies »

  1. To chip in a comment: I find my personal mix of Past/Present/Future is typically 10/30/60 — which might be fairly common for workers in technology who mainly build future systems to solve current problems.

    However the time allocation does not imply that the past is unimportant. The past may only represent 10% of my mix, but it is an immensely important 10%.

    I’ve learned through experience that no matter how bright and shiny a new idea, the past cannot be ignored, because it significantly influences what future possibilities an organization can embrace. The institutional memory of an event several years ago can easily either support or undermine a proposed new idea — especially if the organizational history is not understood and respected in preparing the project plan.

    The past is not really past at all… it shapes the present, and to some degree constrains or enables the future.

    • How true. And depending on the organization, the past may be a very strong influence on what we can and cannot do. Thanks for reading Dan.

  2. Love this article. I am currently enrolled in an online course by almentor and your writing helps me in my homework.

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