“After us, the deluge”, means that we do not take responsibility for our actions. Once we’re dead we cannot be held accountable for what we’ve done wrong and we shift the consequences to future generations. This blog is a reflection based on a number of books that look at the longer-term.

The Punctuation of Time

We have trouble digesting COVID. A part of the trouble is due to our punctuation of time. Organizations are evaluated per fiscal year. Nations levy taxes on the income of a calendar month. Investors look at the quarter and annual results. EBITDA, ROI, … Our whole system is based on time.

And so, there are not enough incentives to look beyond our short-term interpretation of time.

But like Simon Sinek says in his latest book, games we play are infinite. They continue. And this is the mindset we need. The moment the focus is on a number that is linked to a time frame, behavior shifts. Infinite games have no endpoint. They continue.

Leaders should look beyond the quarter, the year, or their job tenure. Their horizon is invisible. That also means they should overcome their own sense of mortality and try and leave a legacy. I’m not talking about the French president Miterrand. He left the Louvre pyramid and the très grande bibliothèque. Nor am I referring to the Pharaohs. They definitely left their mark. The ugly buildings the communist dictators left behind are not about legacy. Neither are the remainders of the Speer architecture in Nazi-Germany. Legacy does not have to be made of tangible bricks and mortar. It does not have to be art. A legacy can also be the impact one has had on the thoughts, habits, and symbols that shape our society.

Leaving a Legacy

Legacy is about creating value for the generations that come after us. The book “The Good Ancestor” gives an idea of what that means. Roman Krznaric explains why we have trouble in thinking extra long term: we are slaves of the clock, we have fragmented attention due to all the digital distractions, politicians only look at the next elections, there is too much financial speculation, there is too much risk, and there is the idea of perpetual growth.

The way to go against that short-termism is humility (we have a limited time on earth), a focus on leaving a legacy, an idea of justice between generations, cathedral thinking (planning projects that are to be achieved across generations), holistic forecasting (there are multiple pathways for civilization) and the transcendent goal (the overall purpose for the planet).

Growth and the Deluge

For a long time there have been warnings against short-termism. A decade ago, Tim Jackson wrote an underestimated book about prosperity without growth. He says that “Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists, and revolutionaries. But question it we must”.

Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists, and revolutionaries. But question it we must

The thing is that we play an infinite game with finite resources. And every generation risks leaving a planet that is less rich, and less capable of fulfilling the needs of the ever-growing population.  Jackson underlines the necessity to consume less “stuff” and to seek prosperity outside affluence: within relationships, family, community, and the meaning of our lives and vocations in a society that values the future. The Growth postulate might create a deluge if we are unable to make growth sustainable. There are business models that generate growth and sustainability.

Leadership

In my book on sustainable leadership, I stressed the need to develop leadership that looks at the interests of all stakeholders and that creates value for the future. This integration of stakeholder interests is important. For decades we have focused on shareholder interests, but this one-sided view on business is not sustainable.

After us the deluge” is a book that shows the human consequences of rising sea levels. It shows how short term thinking has created a situation that will give challenges for the generations to come.

The thing is how we will break through the short term thinking if our human systems have been developed for short term thinking. And the future that we envisage is always discounted. We consumer today what will not be there tomorrow. It has brought us progress, but at the same time, it undermined future prosperity. Niall Ferguson describes 6 killer apps that made the west powerful, two of which are competition and consumerism.

Resilience

But if societies are to be resilient they will need to abandon not only the short-term thinking but the very pillars upon which our economy is built. Competition might be replaced by cooperation. And consumerism might be changed through a continuous learning process. Today we see an increased awareness of a growing number of people that we are playing with finite resources. The success of consumerism as a driving force of societal progress has proven to be unsustainable. The idea of circular economies, cradle-to-cradle ecosystems is attractive but still plays only a minor part of our economy. Step by step we are learning to reduce the impact of human activity on our planet.

Learning, cooperation, and leadership are the three driving forces behind resilience. Resilience is not only an individual capability. On a collective level, there is also organizational and community resilience. If we define resilience as the capability to anticipate and cope with change, we can see the importance of long-term thinking. Long term thinking is a kind of learning. We try to foresee the consequences of our activities and make them better for the future. And that is hard.

By adding the notion of long-term thinking to the term resilience we can expand its meaning. Resilience is about anticipating and coping with change, including all the changes that impact the future generations to come. It also helps us to look at resilience as bouncing forward after adversity, rather than just bouncing back. That is the ultimate level of resilience we need to develop. Anticipating the adverse impact of human activities on current and future generations is a prerequisite of a radically human enterprise.

How?

Before you close this post thinking that these are lofty ideals, we can ask ourselves how?

  1. When you’re an entrepreneur looking for investment, search for investors who see your business as a long term commitment. Avoid investors who think in quarterly results. Of course, the investor wants the value of your business to increase, but if you’re entering a game that stresses the short term over the long term, you are not playing an infinite game.
  2. When hiring an executive, make sure that person is not sensitive to short-term thinking. Avoid short term incentives and monitor the executive committee’s decisions on short term thinking.
  3. Define your stakeholders and the impact of your business on their lives and the lives of their children. Integrate stakeholder thinking in your strategic plan and refer explicitly to the assessment of the impact.
  4. If you benchmark, take the right criteria. Your competitors might have higher returns, but are they good in ancestry?
  5. Avoid superficial actions that might brush up your image, but that have no or even a negative impact on the long term relationships with the stakeholders and their descendants.
  6. With every decision you take you need to ask yourself the two questions of sustainability: is there a good reason to do this (is it worthwhile) and can we do it in a right and sustainable way?
  7. Make a plan to get you closer to a situation that is better than it is today. Make sure the plan is present throughout the strategy instead of having a seperate plan.
  8. Define the growth you need and go from there. Think of the doughnut model: the minimal growth is the inner circle, but do not go beyond a limit. Make sure your growth is as sustainable as possible for all stakeholders.

I strongly believe that every organization can take a step further in building its own resilience and at the same time creating community resilience. The wrong way forward would be to build resilience at the expense of one of the stakeholders. The introverted reflex after adversity might be something that gets you through the quarter or the year. I doubt it will get you much further.

Otolith Library

In the Otolith House, between Bruges and Ghent in the middle of the countryside, you can find a small library. We follow the literature from various disciplines of psychology, philosophy, history and business. That way, we can integrate new insights into our advice.

Find out more

Audeio

We use a method to build strategic plans and change approaches fast. We call it Audeio. The method helps leadership teams to answer questions and initiate change and build organizational resilience.

David Ducheyne

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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