HASH MARKS ON THE WALL… tiny handprints in concrete … are any measures of growth more universal? Over the years, I’ve recorded the progress of my children as they topped four feet, five feet, and beyond…. through pen markings on a wall.
Such growth never progresses at an even pace — spurts are interspersed with modest gains. We can only appreciate that pattern with PERSPECTIVE, over time. (Once, with my heart in my throat, I stopped a painting crew that was about to obliterate a dozen years of hash marks.)
We see the same patterns in economies. If we line up the GDPs of developed and developing countries against the wall of economic expansion, we’ll see emerging markets with double-digit spurts and mature ones whose progress is measured in decimals.
Ebbs and flows should come as no surprise. Economies (like children and trees and other “natural” things) do not grow like magic beanstalks, without hitting plateaus and pauses. And, in the no-growth fallow times, facts become clearer, especially in business. Unproductive offshoots are pruned, while the more promising get added attention. Such discernment, though, is difficult during the beanstalk days, when everything is popping all at once.
And even when there is no growth in one dimension—overall GDP, the height of a young adult—there is often expansion in another. A new technology may be skyrocketing while yesterday’s plummets toward its twilight. That late teen or early 20-something who has reached full height is growing intellectually and in emotional maturity.
Every stage of growth brings a new normal. Economic cycles are healthy — much like a wildfire in the forest — providing renewal and rejuvenation. Change is more likely to succeed when the organization and its employees have a reason to change. Today, there is certainly a reason.
Over the past year, I’ve had numerous conversations with CEOs and world leaders about what they see in their markets. One leader of a Fortune 100 company put it best: “What we’re seeing and living through now is what we ought to expect going forward. But that’s not so terrible. We can work with that.” In other words, companies will adapt, reconfigure and survive when economic tailwinds are absent or weak.
These wise words from a longtime chairman and CEO reflect a healthy realism about the present, which keeps the future in perspective.
When I was a youngster, the citizens of my hometown of McPherson, Kan., buried a time capsule filled with photographs, mementoes and historical records—what they thought people of the future should know about our community. Looking back, I wonder about our choices, given the fact that the world has changed more in the past 20 years than it has in the past 50. Surely we have exceeded the wildest dreams of those who came before us in some areas (the Internet for example), yet elsewhere we have, no doubt, fallen short. (An old-timer in McPherson was certain we’d be living on the moon by 1999—an entire colony of University of Kansas Jayhawks fans; alas, we are still earthbound.)
We all try to encapsulate the past in our own way. I still have a box of newspaper clippings from my childhood and teen years, from Armstrong’s walk on the moon to Nixon’s resignation. Those headlines remind me where I was—and what I expected the future to be.
Whether our idea of the future, ultimately, inspires or disappoints depends largely upon our ability to accept today. As Buddha is quoted as saying, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” We need to keep a firm grasp on “now,” because change can only be appreciated in context of what remains the same.
In other words, leaders in this time of elusive growth must have a clear vision of today if they are to paint a landscape of tomorrow. But, that won’t be enough. Over the past five years, in this supposed recovery, many have been left behind – employees included. Employers continue to ask fewer workers to do more for less money. Organizational capabilities and strategies must be agile, and leaders must trumpet purpose – the WHY of an organization – and celebrate progress, even when growth may at first appear negligible.
Only by measuring and comparing against a fixed point—where the “index” of our observation rests at zero—can we judge how far we’ve gone. The hash marks on the wall remind us that—for trees and teenagers, ecosystems and economies, alike—life is precious and growth is relative…. relative to the past, relative to the horizon, but mostly relative to your PERSPECTIVE. In 2014…. in this fight for \\grōTH\\ and relevancy, leadership will mean balancing purpose and perspective, celebrating along the way.