A characteristic of the 21st century is that organizations experience ongoing change. Now, with a pandemic, an organization can literally experience change overnight. In addition, consumer demand shifted literally overnight as well. It is unknown if consumer demand will shift again as businesses re-open. I believe there will be some changes in consumer demand that are lasting. Leaders who are able to anticipate changes and trends will place their organizations at a competitive advantage.
Foresight is a key leadership characteristic today. I like the Cambridge Dictionary definition for foresight: “the ability to judge correctly what is going to happen in the future and plan your actions based on this knowledge.” A key part of this definition is the ability to plan your actions based upon the knowledge the leader is learning. Northouse (2016, p. 228) defined foresight as the “ability for a leader to predict what is coming based upon what is occurring in the present and what has happened in the past.” Robert Greenleaf, the ATT executive who started servant leadership, believed there was an ethical component to foresight. He believed leaders should be held accountable for any failure to anticipate what reasonably could have been foreseen (Northouse, 2016).
A leader has to monitor trends outside of the organization. This includes multiple industries. Sometimes a meaningful trend is learned by watching another industry. It is also helpful to imagine what might be next or how would something changing now affect consumers or other organizations. The leader thinks about the possibilities of how their own organization might be effected.
A leader can also imagine with other internal leaders about information being learned. Together, they think of possibilities of how the trend could affect the business. The next step is to brainstorm how they might respond if affected by the change. This type of thinking can lead to the creation of a contingency plan. If the change occurs, the organization is ready with a plan for transitioning based upon the contingency plan.
I was teaching a live lecture class for the Spring semester this year. I monitor what other schools do as well as my own. I saw where a large university on the West Coast had a student who tested positive for Covid-19 and the university shut down all live meetings including classes to prevent spread. This happened at the beginning of March. I realized that the probability of this happening at other universities was high. I discussed with a colleague what I learned and my colleague agreed that it could happen at our school. We discussed ways to make the transition online smooth for students. I designed a contingency plan for finishing the semester online and discussed the plan with my students in our next class. The plan showed what would remain the same and what would change. It also included how their teams would interact online as well as how I would conduct office hours online. It provided a sense of comfort to the students knowing how the class would be different if it had to finish online and what they needed to do to be successful. After presenting the plan, a few days later, the university ruled all classes would finish the semester online due to pandemic. My class was prepared! In my course evaluations a student comments, “…the smoothest transition to online ever!”
As in my example, foresight can take place at any level of the organization. It has become a critical characteristic for leaders today. A leader with foresight steers their organization for a competitive future based upon what has happened in the past and what is currently happening by imagining a competitive future. Foresight is characteristic that can be learned.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.