By Tracey Swanepoel

I clearly recall the rock band, Talking Heads’ mid 80’s hit, Road to Nowhere. Its somewhat anthemic rhythm tends to reverberate around my head in frustration, post an encounter with a business that is unclear about its strategy. For many of us that use Waze or Google Maps we know that nothing happens unless you type in your destination. The same is true of strategy – as leaders we have to be crystal clear about our direction, but more than that to engage our people we need to tap into their emotions.

In the words of Antoine de St Exupery: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

For both companies and individuals there’s an enormous benefit in having painted their picture of the future or having articulated their version of a much yearned for “vast and endless sea”. Why? Because everyone fears the unknown. It’s part of the human condition.

Followers seek out leaders who can alleviate this unconscious fear – leaders who are able to paint a compelling and vivid picture of the future. This works at an emotional level because it enables leaders to transform people’s often-unexpressed fear and anxiety into something far more positive: hope, inspiration, excitement, the thrill of an adventure. By creating confidence in an as yet unconstructed future, leaders provide an antidote to uncertainty, and become dealers in hope.

Painting a picture of the future works on a practical, rational level too: because the leader and his/her team can literally “time-travel”, and stand in their imagined future. It enables them to take today’s decisions with the benefit of hindsight.

Every day, leaders make decisions about how to allocate resources (time, people and money) that they hope will propel the company forward, towards its future. Many of these may be good, even great, decisions, but if the picture of the future isn’t crystal clear, how can decisions really be evaluated? Standing in an imagined future can shift a leader’s perspective, and consequently improve his/her decisions quite dramatically.

How does this work in practice? I remember chatting to the CEO of a global multinational mining group who had recently acquired an international asset. All efforts thus far had been going in to aligning payrolls, salary scales, employee gradings with the South African based mothership. One conversation where we mentally travelled three years into the future, (which articulated the idea that the international asset rather than the South African based asset would form the mothership of the group) revealed the folly, not to mention the enormous waste of time and resources that had gone into the alignment exercise. If anything, the South African assets should have been aligned to the new assets – exactly the opposite to what was contemplated prior to this simple but effective exercise.

A clear picture of the future is also an antidote to the complex mess of the current reality that most leaders deal with on a daily basis. One of our clients, busy with implementing a multitude of change initiatives was at a loss about how to deal with the resultant flagging morale, as well as explain how each initiative integrates and relates to the business’s overarching purpose. This is an easy trap to fall into: leaders tend to be so obsessed with communicating the laundry list of “whats” that they omit the rest of the story: the context, the reason for the changes, and the imagined future.

Once the company’s future is clear, it forms the base from which employees can find the hooks from which they can align their own goals (the famous ‘What’s In It for Me’) with the future that the company is pursuing.

Painting the future is as valuable for budding entrepreneurs as it is for big corporates. Many entrepreneurs are freedom fighters, overflowing with ideas, driven to innovate and create – on their own terms. Often, they also dream of building a business: a great dream, no dispute. But do they “go there” in sufficient detail to understand that with growth comes complexity, bureaucracy, management of people – a beast that needs to be fed – effectively removing the very freedom they originally fought so hard to attain? I’ve heard countless sad stories of people who have given up everything to get “there”, only to eventually find out that the “there” is not what they wanted at all.

Where does painting the future intersect with traditional business school concepts like big hairy, audacious goal (BHAG); vision and mission? The perspective is different: vision, and mission look forward, whereas painting a picture enables you to look back FROM that future. Vision and mission statements are often obscure, abstract, jargon heavy and forgettable. A picture of the future needs to be vivid. Emotional. Compelling. Inspiring. Something that imprints itself on your soul, makes you sit up, take note and yearn!