I have been in Saudi Arabia during the past two weeks. I was lecturing at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). It was a wonderful experience and I want to offer a lesson from it in this week’s Leading Thoughts.
Some years ago, King Abdullah concluded that the oil in Saudi Arabia would one day run out. This meant that his people would have to learn different skills and shift to a different kind of economy. He decided to build a university that would train the top students in the knowledge necessary for this new economy. He put billions of dollars into that university.
Once it was built, he began asking the scientists there to do the research essential to answering the future. Show us how to replace the oil with solar energy, he insisted. Tell us how to desalinate sea water more efficiently. Develop the technologies essential for growing hydroponic plants and reclaiming farm land from the sea and building elevated light rail throughout the Kingdom.
In short, King Abdullah discerned the future and asked his people to prepare for it. The result is that, as you read this, an entire nation built on petroleum is being readied for the day the oil runs out. This is all because King Abdullah gave himself to one of the most important duties of a leader: anticipate the future and change in order to meet it.
We cannot see the future with certainty but we can envision its broad outlines. We can recognize at least the minimum demands of what is coming. This is one of the most important duties of a leader. Even the name “leader” indicates that leaders are ahead of those they lead—out in front, in other words—seeing what others cannot see, calling back instructions so that everyone is able to navigate what is coming.
For example, we cannot know everything about a possible financial upheaval, but we do know the lessons of recent economic history: debt destroys, cash is king, and diverse income streams mean safety.
This leadership duty requires three things. First, we cannot be so mired in the present that we do not give thought to what is coming. Second, we cannot grasp the known and the familiar so tightly that we are unwilling to make necessary changes. Third, we must have the courage to put plans in place that ready us for the demands of the future.
Make a plan soon to step away from the press of the daily. Get some perspective. Ask these questions: What are the trends changing my field? What are they likely to look like in five years? In ten years? In twenty? How can I prepare? What can I start to do now that will make me and all I lead ready?
To lead is to anticipate. To lead is to welcome the future as a friend. To lead is to be out in front, see what others don’t, and give instructions that align everyone for the new day dawning.
Lead well. You can do it. Don’t fear the future. Welcome it and prepare for it.
That’s it. Have a good weekend. And go Notre Dame. Beat Michigan State!