Leadership in an Uncertain Future
Leadership means being prepared for the worst even when things look good
“The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go oft awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!” — Robert Burns, 1785
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Did you ever have the perfect event planned, only for everything to go awry?
A product launch, a surprise celebration for an important milestone, a romantic meal. In your mind’s eye, you envisioned everything going off flawlessly, almost scripted like a scene out of Hollywood.
Reality hits, and it’s not pretty. A supplier doesn’t come through with essential parts for your launch, a message doesn’t make it to the honoree in time, the power goes out in the middle of cooking dinner.
What do you do?
Before you head in any one direction, the first step is simple: acknowledge the reality of your newfound situation.
“Very well. So the universe is not quite as you thought it was. You’d better rearrange your beliefs, then. Because you certainly can't rearrange the universe.” — Isaac Asimov, 1941
Every leader needs a plan. But they also need backup plans.
Better leaders know it’s not enough to have a plan. They’ve seen things go sideways before. And like any self-aware person, they know that it could happen to them.
Take General Dwight Eisenhower for example.
He prepared his troops as best he could for Operation Overlord (aka the D-Day invasion). He sent this letter to his men:
“You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. We will accept nothing less than victory! Good luck!”
He also built their confidence:
“This operation is planned as a victory, and that’s the way it’s going to be. We’re going down there, and we’re throwing everything we have into it, and we’re going to make it a success.”
But Ike knew that there were variables that were out of his control: the weather, the number of enemy awaiting them, and scores of other things. So he prepared a note in the event of a catastrophic loss that day:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
The Allies’ victory was not assured that day, but after many casualties, they succeeded. Ike did not need to send that admission of failure—written with nerves so jangly that he misdated the note as July 5 instead of June 5.
“Life is divided into three periods: past, present, and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.” — Seneca, 49
Seneca’s observation is an important one: nothing in the future—nothing—is certain. Leaders need to have contingency plans and to adapt to the changing market forces, on the fly if necessary.
So back to the initial example. You find yourself in an unexpected circumstance.
Maybe you had planned a series of promotions for your company on Facebook or Instagram this week. The big Facebook outage was a surprise—certainly to the folks at Facebook, some of whom couldn’t even access their buildings.
What did you do instead?
Some people flocked to Twitter. Others turned inward and took an opportunity to enjoy some relative serenity.
But the prepared leaders likely knew that it isn’t wise to rely on platforms you don’t control. Building on rented land is a guaranteed disaster. They had their own platforms, their own way to contact their communities. They didn’t depend on Facebook’s availability, nor on its capricious algorithms.
Facebook itself is in need of a contingency plan. The social media giant has been on top for so long, it seems otherworldly to consider it on the decline. But Facebook is showing signs of weakness, and absent its need to pivot, users ought to give deep thought as to where and when they leverage the platform.
Especially given what we know from the whistle-blower, who may be Facebook’s biggest threat in years.
Makes you wonder what kind of a backup plan the leaders at Facebook have.
Thanks, and I'll see you on the internet.
If you’re interested in hearing more about understanding trends and preparing for the future, tune in to a Twitter Space I’m hosting with Jeremiah Owyang. We recorded this episode of Timeless Leadership on the topic of Adaptability: