Why A Leader’s Vision Is Better Informed By The Past


by Kevin Watson



To create a credible vision, it makes sense that a leader’s attention is fixed towards the future, right?

After all, a critical part of any leader’s job is to imagine the future and share that vision with the team

Well, perhaps not always…

Research undertaken by Omar A. El Sawy in the 1980s at the University of Southern California* suggests that always being future focussed may not necessarily be the best route to creating a credible, inspiring vision.

In a study conducted with thirty-four CEO’s, El Sawy asked half the group to think of 10 events that might happen to them in their personal future, dating each item, and then to think of 10 events from their past. The second group were asked to do the task the other way round, that is to think first about their past and then their future.

He discovered that while both groups had similar past horizons, the second group’s future horizon was consistently almost double that of the first’s.

El Sawy’s explanation for this phenomenon is that we make sense of our world retrospectively, with all understanding coming from reflection, looking back in time. So to gain a longer view into the future, first look back! 

And, as you look back, you may find that the ideas and resources to making future events happen have been right under your nose.

Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.Jonathan Swift

Take the internet as an example. It’s been around since the late sixties, but the commercial technology needed to make it viable for public use didn’t arrive until the nineties.

Rudolf Diesel invented the first diesel engine in 1897, but diesel has only recently been developed to the level of refinement that makes them such a hit in the car market today.

So, are you paying attention to what’s right in front of you?

Have you noticed the trends and patterns that exist around you? 

Where there is no vision, there is no hope.George Washington Carver

Call to Action:

First, identify what you are truly passionate about. If you are paying attention to something, it’s most likely because you are passionate about it. Without passion, attention wanders.

Next, go back in time and list 10 events linked to your passion. Date them.

Look for trends or patterns. What do you notice?

Now list and date 10 events you think might or will happen to you in the future.

Lastly, ask: “What would be 10 times better than that?” 

* O. A. El Sawy, Temporal Biases in Strategic Attention research paper,1988, University of Southern California


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About the Author

Kevin Watson

Kevin is a highly experienced Leadership Coach and acts as Consultant to several boards of global organisations, as well as local business owners. He is passionate about making a difference by enabling and encouraging leaders who want to create and sustain meaningful change in themselves and the organisation.



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