Recently, I was invited to speak to an audience of business executives on the subject of the next one hundred years. Specifically, what will the next two generations of kids look like as adults, and how will they navigate their society’s needs and challenges?
I’d like to share with you a summary of the ideas I shared that day. I don’t claim to be a futurist or a prophet, but like many, I can see social and cultural patterns.
Our children will be living in a culture far more complex than we can even imagine today. Generation iY and Generation Z are young, but within 20-30 years, they will be leading businesses, schools, healthcare facilities and governments. Pause and consider for a moment the evolution of issues facing educators over time:
When I was growing up…
As a student, the principals and deans who led me faced issues like drug abuse, loud music, cigarettes, mini-skirts and alcohol. We, the young Baby Boomers, were the “party hardy” generation. In retrospect, perhaps our biggest vice was disrespect for authority.
As my kids are growing up…
Today, principals and deans are facing far more unconventional challenges on a larger scale, such as binge drinking, gender identity, same sex attraction, Internet addiction and performance enhancing drugs.
As my grandkids are growing up…
We can only speculate the challenges our grandchildren will face in a global world, with international competition for jobs, pluralistic values, and the potential for greater psychological, emotional and behavioral issues.
At the same time, these challenges will bring with them opportunities for growth. Every crisis can be a catalyst for progress when handled well. Progress and growth will follow if our leadership meets the challenges to come with both vision and values.
Complexity Requires a Compass and Telescope
For example, I spoke to a dean of students recently who told me her staff was debating how to handle a transgender issue, where a male student (by birth) wanted to live in a female residence hall. What should they do? They felt they couldn’t handle a complex issue like this, or even same sex attraction, by merely calling it a “choice” students face. It’s just not that simple. The dean reminded me: “If you examine the numbers of suicide rates in the gay community and the ages when many first encountered identity confusion, you cannot simply conclude it’s a choice. Millions have struggled from an early age and have wished for a heterosexual attraction that others would accept. Whatever schools conclude, it’s a complex issue that today’s leaders cannot hide from.”
The fact of the matter is, this is just one of many complex issues we face in our time. Consequently, today’s leaders must utilize timeless values in the midst of our dynamic culture. These are the guiding principles we hold to be self-evident, the ones we know to be universal and will direct society into a healthy and preferred tomorrow.
What Students Need From Us
As we prepare students for the prospects and predicaments of tomorrow, we cannot merely imitate or cling to the methods of the past. If we’ve learned nothing else from our progression into the 21st century, it’s that the future is not merely an extension of the past. The complexities and uncertainties require better leadership from us. Therefore, lasting leaders must possess a balance of two important characteristics:
- This means we have foresight and can see the future.
- This means we are adaptable and are ready to change.
- This means we are always fostering healthy progress.
- This means we embrace timeless principles that help them succeed.
- This means we furnish a gauge to students to make wise decisions.
- This means we hold fast and never change what we know to be right.
It’s a delicate balance. If we are leaders who only embrace a “progressive” style, we may neglect ethical or healthy standards in the name of progress. However, if we only embrace a “principled” style, we may not position ourselves to see the need for change or may avoid making changes that meet the needs of the hour.
What it Means to Carry a Telescope and a Compass
This is why I use two metaphors to describe what lasting leaders must possess:
A Telescope – Enables us to see into the distant future and prepare.
If we’re to lead well in the 21st century, we must keep our ear to the ground and see what people need in the distant future. We must embrace, not avoid, progress.
A Compass – Enables us to remember timeless values and standards for direction.
At the same time, we must both hold fast and transfer timeless values to kids who may have no sense of heritage or standard of conduct. Pragmatism must not trump principle.
What do you think about the Telescope and the Compass? Are there ways you’ve struggled to balance being Progressive and Principled as a leader?
I hope to see you at the 2015 National Leadership Forum. Here are the highlights of our forum last June.
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