In our hyper-dynamic and complex world, it is easy to confuse means with ends, activity with progress, efficiency with effectiveness, and busyness with importance. We are living and working on a high-speed roller coaster, hanging on, experiencing the thrill of the ride, yet becoming oblivious to our surroundings and our sense of direction. As a result, we are losing our capacity to influence our own future.
It is estimated that all of the world’s trade in 1949, all of the foreign exchange dealings in 1979, and all of the telephone calls made around the world in 1984 happen today in just 24 hours. A year in a day is how it feels. Coping with such an accelerated pace erodes our ability to imagine and design a better future. I see this disconnect every day in the classroom, in the boardroom, and in government agencies, here and elsewhere in the world where I have taught, lectured, and consulted.
Do you feel overwhelmed by the pressures and competing demands of contemporary life? Are you waiting for things to settle before pursuing your most cherished aspirations? As we bend to pressures of the moment, the gap between our aspirations and the reality of our present situation widens. It may seem easier to simply cope, but with coping we forfeit the future.
The future is something we rarely address in a formal way and is something for which we rarely receive guidance. But we have the power to shape our future if we are willing to find, nurture and unleash the leader within and create the conditions and context for our own success
What makes the task of envisioning and creating a desirable future so difficult is the gap imposed between thought and action. This gap of time and space is often filled with fear, uncertainty, worry, and conflicting priorities. Too often we invent our best excuses, turn our dreams into fantasies and abandon our aspirations.
In my book “Leader of One,” I introduce a pragmatic and powerful cycle to effectively close that gap. It has been successful at both individual and organizational levels, from senior executives to undergraduate students, from small business to Fortune 500 companies, and from small nonprofits to the presidency of the United States.
The cycle has four phases: contemplation, desire, design and creation. These four phases must be taken together, applied in a holistic fashion. If carried out with discipline and commitment, this cycle will guide individuals in becoming a leader.
Contemplation: Slow down and reflect on your current situation. Take an inventory of activities that you’ve been postponing. Think about your conception of the future. Do you believe the future is predetermined or something you can control? How you think about the future will impact how you behave in the present.
Desire: Reassess what you truly want for yourself and others. This stage helps you gauge the strength and intensity of what you want. It is here where you articulate the “what” that you want to pursue. Explore the dynamics of following your passion, your purpose in life. Too often we drift because of the constant pressures of making a living and meeting the demands around us. It’s easy to become derailed and suppress what we truly want to pursue.
Design: Determine how you are going to make it happen. Design a blueprint, just as an architect creates a mock-up of a building before construction. With a design in place, you can take action. Asking the right questions is critical: How are your actions and behaviors contributing to creating the future that you want?
Creation: This is the most difficult stage: committing to action. You can reflect, assess and design a future for yourself time and again, but without the act of creation, you have laid waste your energies.
The process of contemplation-desire-design-creation is designed so that the process can begin again, a cycle of perpetual renewal. This cycle offers a way to help you transcend the present and its obstacles, and create for yourself a viable future.
The future is not a destination, a place. Successful “leaders of one” understand that the benefits of pursuing a desired future are more valuable than arriving. That’s because when we try to shape our future, we shape ourselves in the process. There are no shortcuts. The first steps are always the most difficult, but each one will bring you closer to “there.”
Find your purpose, trust your vision, and become a Leader of One. For if you do, your future will be mostly influenced by you, not by them, they or it. Never be afraid of failure, but always be afraid of not trying.
J. Gerald Suarez is a Professor of the Practice in Systems Thinking and Design and a fellow of the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. He is author of, “Leader of One: Shaping Your Future Through Imagination and Design,” which is a distillation of many years of research and his interaction and experiences with world leaders, corporate executives, world-renowned educators and insightful students.