If you're roughly my age (ahem!), you might dimly recall how amazing it was to be a kid 25 years ago this week and to hear that McDonald's was breaking ground on its first restaurant in Moscow. This was an almost unfathomable news story. Just five years earlier, my adolescent friends and I had been more or less obsessed with a PG-13 movie about the Soviets invading America. Now it turned out America was invading Russia.
To get an idea of just how bizarre the idea was that a U.S. fast food restaurant would open in Red Square, check out this video of the line that formed on the first day it opened.
I'm mentioning this anecdote not because of nostalgia (well, not only because of nostalgia), but because it illustrates just how quickly things that we think are constant can change. Moreover, it shows just how few people can accurately predict big changes before they happens.
There are always a few great leaders, though, who somehow see farther into the future than the rest of us.
Whether you're leading a growing company, or helping your kids decide what to study at school, here are seven things that explain how great leaders understand the future a bit differently.
1. They understand that unthinkable will happen, often.
Within a few decades, the United States went from fighting all-out war against Japan and Germany to viewing their cars as the gold standard of luxury. In 1980, the U.S. boycotted the Olympics in Moscow; 10 years later the Berlin Wall was gone and the Cold War was over. In the late 1990s, according to the CDC, the tobacco industry had a seemingly unshakable stranglehold on American teenagers. (Nearly 40 percent of U.S. high school then students said they smoked.) Now the figure is more like 19 percent.
Great leaders can't always predict specific enormous, fast-moving changes. However, they do understand that these kind of reversals--the things that most of us think could never change--are among the rules, not the exception.
2. They understand that David will often defeat Goliath.
We tend to think that being bigger and more powerful are advantages in any competition. Sometimes that's true, but it's also true that smaller, nimbler, leaner competitors often come out on top. Think of Google in the early to mid-2000s, when it was hiring the best engineers it could find and acquiring social network after network while News Corp paid $500 million for MySpace. Lo and behold, the dominant social network was being built in a Harvard dorm room.
Great leaders don't discount the advantages that larger players have, but they understand that you don't know how a competition will play out until it actually plays out.
3. They understand that some basic things will never change.
People will always have certain basic needs: food and shelter, a sense of security, friendship, community, self-worth and others. For example, whether people were writing "air mail" letters to their loved ones, or making long-distance telephone calls, or sending emails, or getting on Skype, they were always trying to satisfy basic, human needs--things like interacting with friends and family. The way people address these needs change, but the needs themselves stay constant.
Great leaders recognize that there are many uncertainties in life, but if you build a business that helps meet these kinds of perpetual customer needs, you'll have a leg up on your competition.
4. They understand that demographics affects destiny.
There were about 281 million people living in the United States at the turn of the century; now that figure is estimated to be 317 million. The way that population has grown, and how its makeup has changed over time, gives important clues to what the future will hold. If we have a higher percentage of senior citizens, that tells you that some markets will expand, while others might contract. Moreover, more income inequality means more opportunities to sell overpriced things to the obscenely rich, and means opportunities to come up with economical products and services for the rest of us.
Bottom line? Great leaders pay attention to the census.
5. They understand that things move in cycles.
I was kidding my nephew not long ago for sporting a tie so skinny that it looked as if I could have worn it in my high school graduation photo. Fashions hit hard. Then they wear out their welcome, are mocked, disappear, and eventually return.
Great leaders understand that while it's sometimes difficult to predict how and when certain styles and attitudes will come back around, they often will. Thus, the best way to predict the future is sometimes to examine how things unfolded in the past.
6. They understand that herds don't think.
Groupthink is most often wrong precisely because so many in the group don't think. It's the equivalent of when nobody does an obvious thing that will help a group, simply because everyone assumes somebody else in the group will do it.
Great leaders understand that the worst reason to commit to any course of action or continue any type of behavior is probably because "everyone does it." Moreover, being among the small minority who think for themselves can translate into significant advantages.
7. They understand that pioneers get slaughtered, but settlers prosper.
People rarely remember the first person to accomplish something. Instead, they remember (and sometimes celebrate) the first people to accomplish those same things while incorporating lessons they had learned from their predecessors' mistakes. Everyone knows the Wright Brothers, for example, but who remembers Otto Lilienthal?
Great leaders understand that first-mover advantage is only that: a potential advantage. Often it's those who come to an idea next, and who perfect it, who eventually benefit from it most.
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