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Our Greatest Deficit: Future-Oriented Leadership

Submitted by: John Elkington

Posted: Oct 04, 2011 – 09:50 PM EST

Series: The Future Quotient

Tags: future quotient, fq, sustainability, leadership, csr, economy, future generations


By John Elkington[1]

Future Quotient 1 (first in a 3-part series)

An old order is coming apart, a new one—for better or worse—self-assembling. To help build and succeed in the new order, leaders in the private, public and citizen sectors need to switch from thinking about incremental change to transformational, systemic change. And to do this they will need to connect wider, analyze deeper, aim higher and invest longer. This is the key conclusion of The Future Quotient, a new study from Volans and JWT, designed to help set the agenda for 2012’s UN Summit on Sustainable Development.

Rather than simply diagnose the problem, the report sketches out a process by which we can measure the future-readiness of individuals, teams, businesses, brands and beyond. In this series of articles for CSRwire we headline some of the conclusions reached – and offer readers an opportunity to take a brief, dipstick test that provides an initial reading of their future orientation.

Figure 1: Will the ability to think and act long-term be more or less important?

Long-term thinking graph

We undertook our own dipstick survey, polling 4,000 members of our global network, with fuller results provided in the report—downloadable for free. As indicated in the diagram, there was an overwhelming sense thinking and acting long-term will be increasingly important, yet the overwhelming majority of respondents felt our ability to think long-term—let alone intergenerationally—is weakening.

This may be understandable in the context of the deepest economic downturn for generations, but too often politics and business have been misreading the runes, concluding that we are in simply enduring another recession. By contrast, Volans predicted the protracted nature of the downturn in its 2009 report, The Phoenix Economy.[2]

Our central argument was that we were seeing not simply a great recession but the early stages of an era of creative destruction. History tells us when these periods happen, those who are ill prepared and unwilling to reinvent themselves go to the wall. Eventually, of course, capitalism will mutate and evolve, but not uniformly around the globe.

We also noted a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, but as we drafted The Future Quotient it was clear the opportunity had largely been squandered. America’s debt rating has been downgraded, Greece has teetered on the edge of default, with European political leaders scrambling to shore up other countries, indeed the entire Euro system. The UK has seen astonishing levels of violence in London, our home city, and elsewhere. Even normally peaceful Norway has been shaken to the core by an outbreak of anti-Islamicism that left scores of people dead.

It is in the very nature of things that a proportion of leaders fail, but when the rate of failure goes off the chart, chances are system failure is at the heart of the problem. The current generation of leaders has fought their way to the top of the pile in a system whose rules they understood, indeed helped to define and police. As a new order begins to emerge, their instincts, reflexes and well-honed solutions increasingly fail to address the new challenges.

As the system weakens and stresses build, human nature dictates that we try to do more of what worked in the past. We focus even more on the conventionally defined bottom line. Stuck in a hole, we continue to dig. Eventually, natural selection will sort winners from losers, but will the winners be any better at addressing the core elements of the sustainability agenda?

So do we trust to luck and allow a new economy to emerge wherever it chooses to do so, or do we seize the opportunity to create and shape the new order? In The Future Quotient we choose the second option. Now, more than ever, it is time for businesses and their brands, governments and civil society organizations to test and build their capacity to meet the needs of both present and future generations.

Yet chances are in 2012 we will be bombarded with reports and case studies suggesting significant advances in relation to the sustainability agenda. Progress has since been made on some fronts, true, but on balance we seem to have gone backwards.

On the upside, corporate commitments to sustainability-focused initiatives actually increased during the first phase of the global downturn, with almost 60% of companies in a recent survey saying their investments in related areas increased in 2010.[3]

On the downside, a key element of the 1987 Brundtland Commission agenda was the issue of long-term and intergenerational timescales and equity—and here we are failing, badly. With very few exceptions, leaders, decision-makers and policy-makers are not yet thinking and acting for the longer term. Indeed, stressed by the protracted downturn, too often they are hunkering down, lowering their ambitions and shrinking their timescales.

The uncomfortable truth is much of what currently passes for sustainability strategy in business is little more than corporate citizenship—and more or less completely ignores the pivotal concept in the sustainability agenda, the interests and needs of future generations. This is even true of the much-vaunted Creating Shared Value (CSV) approach developed by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer.

So we are developing a new measure of the readiness of a team, business, government agency or economy: what we call the ‘Future Quotient.’[4] As a first step, we have teamed up with John Furey and his team at MindTime Technologies, based in California, and devised a simple, easy-to-take test of an individual’s, team’s or organization’s future-readiness.

We will introduce the test in our second article, to be posted next week on October 11, providing a link for readers who want to take the test—plus a link to the final report. Our aim is to build a set of benchmarks that can be used to compare and contrast the future orientations and preparedness of different groups and networks. The third article, to be posted October 18, will introduce a selection of what we dub our Top 50 ‘Stars in Seriously Long-term Innovation.’

About John Elkington

John Elkington is Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of Volans (http://www.volans.com) and Co-Founder and Non-Executive Director at SustainAbility (http://www.sustainability.com).

His latest book is The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier (Earthscan/Taylor & Francis) to be published April 2012.

He blogs at http://www.johnelkington.com and http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/sustainability-with-john-elkington, and tweets at @volansjohn.

[1] The author thanks his co-authors on the report, Charmian Love of Volans and Alastair Morton of JWT. He also thanks four partner organizations: Atkins, The Dow Chemical Company, MindTime Technologies and The Shell Foundation.

[2] http://www.volans.com/lab/projects/phoenix/

[3] Sustainability: The ‘Embracers’ Seize Advantage, MIT Sloan Management Review, 2011, http://sloanreview.mit.edu/feature/sustainability-advantage/

[4] If you use SMS or text messaging, you may find that FQ has a somewhat salacious meaning—but we decided to ride with that.

Readers: How future-ready are you or your organization? Stay tuned to Talkback and find out!

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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