No leader wants simply to talk about the future — they want to reach it. To do that, your leadership in this moment must reflect that future. Far from a platitude, that’s a simple yet powerful guide to sustained leadership success. The problem is less that leaders lack a sense of this and more that most lack a practice, a practice that makes their long view matter right now.
There is no formula for making the long view matter right now. Rather than a recipe, it’s mindset that matters most – a mindset by which every action and decision today links to tomorrow. While there is no formula, examples help, especially across a range.
The long view, by the book
Katie Paterson is great example of a leader with a long view, one she’s destined not to realize herself. Really, that’s the whole idea. Paterson founded the Future Library Project, an effort that at its core consists of a forest yet-to-be and a cadre of fellow leaders, many also yet to be.
Several years ago, Paterson began asking leading writers across genres to contribute original works of their choosing to the project — not in bulk, but a single work by one new writer each year. Less by plan and more by inevitability, each writer and work reflect their time. Because they do, the project will change with time.
Paterson’s long view is to add a writer and a work each year for 100 years, ultimately accumulating chapters of human history spanning generations. As she does, she’s also growing a forest, one large enough to supply the raw materials for the book those stories will one day make. In Paterson’s example, the entire business plan is the long view, consciously built and shaped moment by current moment.
Breathing air from the future into the present
While some long views are about what might be accomplished, others are about sustaining an ongoing vision. Nearly a decade ago, at the peak of its success, Google consciously chose to prove what made it so successful.
It’s not the typical mindset of move for a company miles ahead of the competition. But by choice and through an undertaking dubbed Project Oxygen, Google combed not its earnings reports or industry headlines, but the data supporting it all — data on hiring, management, and growth to see clearly, not speculatively its key success factors.
Google’s leadership didn’t have to do this. They were even certain what they’d find – that things like technical prowess would reign supreme. By their conscious choice to tie present to future, however, they learned how wrong they were. The technical did matter, but it ranked dead last in importance to other skills like the ability to communicate and team build.
The decision to proactively affirm the source of their success fine-tuned Google’s path to continuing to experience it far into the future. Let’s shift gears once more for one more example.
Getting there by not assuming “here” is here to stay
As one of the leading voices in food in the last four decades, Alice Waters may be best known as the founder of Chez Panisse, a world-renowned restaurant in northern California. And because of that success, every single year she threatens to close its doors. It sounds the opposite of taking the long view (and a little bit crazy). But the threat is genuine, and the habit vital to achieving her long view.
The vision was never just having a restaurant. It was having a restaurant that mattered – to food lovers, to her team, and to herself. That’s why each threat to close it down signals the kickoff of a deep annual introspection for her whole team into why – why does Chez Panisse matter? Why is the hard work still worth it? If it’s not, why aren’t we changing things, even closing?
In more than 50 years, they haven’t closed yet, and their march to reach their long view has stayed fresh.
How to make the long-view-right-now work for you
These examples make clear that there is no one way to bring the long view into the here and now. One has a business model based on the long view itself. Rather than simply enjoy success, two were willing to question theirs. All three have developed their own distinct habits for staying in touch with the long view. No two are alike. For each, it’s an ongoing practice that’s the key — that, and one more thing.
In all of the examples above of the long view in the here and now, the undertaking is approached as a collective responsibility, right and reward. It’s a fact that bringing the long view into the immediate is a vital to leadership success in an ever-changing world.
As important is understanding and embracing leadership as a shared task. A senior leader’s most important job is to create an environment in which everyone can lead. When you share that right and empower everyone to seek the long view in everything they do, you move yourself and your organization a step closer to realizing it.
Larry Robertson is an innovation advisor who works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. Robertson was named a Fulbright Scholar in 2021. He’s also the author of two award-winning books: “The Language of Man. Learning to Speak Creativity” and “A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress.” As founder of Lighthouse Consulting, he has for over 25 years guided entrepreneurial ventures and their leaders through growth to lasting success. His third book, “Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times,” was released June 1, 2021.
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