Ever since I was young, I have always been interested in history. I love studying history as it provides clues as to how and why the present world came to be. History more than anything can also tell us why some individuals, organisations or even civilisations ended-up becoming more successful than others.
In the words of famous historian Norman Davies whose two-volume history of Poland I’m currently reading “Why Poland was unable to organise its considerable human and economic resources as efficiently as its neighbours … Why Prussia and Russia possessed the demonic drive to expand while its neighbours did not”.
I love this quote as it alludes to a history that could have been but didn’t happen. In effect, it invites us to think “what if …” and about a counterfactual scenario of history taking a very different path to the one, it ended up taking.
Why leaders should be mindful of paths not taken
It is not obvious at first glance how this concept of paths not taken relates to leadership. After all, why should we concern ourselves with thinking about futures that didn’t come to be; or speculate about what could have been? The reason this concept of “paths not taken” matters in leadership is because, in many respects, leadership is the art of possibilities and is all about direction. One of the definitions of the verb ‘to lead’ from the Cambridge English Dictionary is “to show the way to a group of people, animals, vehicles, etc. by going in front of them”. It is in my opinion quite fascinating that a lot of professions quintessentially associated with leadership. For example, ship captains, generals or explorers all have in common the act of moving a group of people towards a precise location or a certain direction.
I would go as far as arguing that a leader that isn’t moving an organisation or a group of people towards something isn’t a leader at all. After all, what is the point of following somebody that don’t know where they are going? Yet even as a de facto executive leader in a major international organisation. I have met many colleagues and peers that didn’t have a sense of direction and had no idea of what lay ahead of them. Not a having a vision is one part of the problem here and lacking a clear strategy is another one. The foremost challenge however is missing a sense of perspective across time, space and actions.
What are paths not taken?
In theory, paths not taken can arise from “what if I had not eaten today?” to “what if the COVID-19 pandemic had never happened?”. Every decision we take as individuals or groups has consequences and implications. What’s more, every single one of these decisions could have happened differently, not been taken in the first place or led to different outcomes altogether. We can view these decisions as a leaf, with the initial decision at its steam and different paths branching out from there which represent a multitude of alternative decisions.
Does this mean that in theory, an infinite number of outcomes are possible out of the decisions a leader might make? Yes and no.
Yes, because according to the butterfly effect. A butterfly flapping its wings in London could generate tiny changes in local cloud conditions that may ripple through the atmosphere and trigger a storm in Sydney. According to this theory, if my team had never come up with the concept of the incentives board back in 2019 and taken a different path instead. Today’s world could have ended up becoming a very different place and the pandemic may never have happened at all. Farfetched? Yes, it is and the likelihood of events turning out that way is very very small indeed … but not zero.
No, because there are constraints in which we all operate and some outcomes are simply impossible to happen in any circumstances. For example, had I decided not to move my organisation online back in March 2020, this would have only delayed the inevitable as external events outside of my control were already at work. In this situation, looking at the future and perspectives across time mattered.
Possessing a deep sense of perspective can allow one to be aware of how a situation could evolve, what possibilities lie ahead in terms of outcomes or even what could have been under different circumstances. Developing a sense of perspective is however not easy.
How leaders can develop a sense of perspective
The first step is acknowledging that many different outcomes can arise from the decisions we take and that any organisation could have ended-up becoming very different. This forces one to accept that nothing is necessarily guaranteed to happen. Indeed, asking questions such as why did an organisation or a group became more successful than others. Or conversely wondering why they failed when others occupying in the same position succeeded. Can uncover plenty of answers to either replicate past and present successes or alternative paths not taken that could have led to much better outcomes.
I’ve always found it interesting that in my organisation, few of its members and even fewer of its leaders know its history. This is shocking as the history of the organisation in the United Kingdom essentially explains some of its current challenges and even some future potential threats. Having a deep appreciation of what lies behind is the foundation stone to developing a sense of perspective.
In many ways, leadership has a lot in common with driving and telling the driver what lies behind them is why cars possess rearview mirrors and proximity sensors. Good drivers will also know at what speed they’re at, which gear they’re using and what are the conditions on the road. I am a big believer that knowledge is power and that greater leaders must unleash their inner child and be curious. Curiosity, digging deep and asking a lot of questions can provide us with an amazing degree of awareness both of oneself and the world around us. Nowadays it is also very easy to get a lot of insights from data analysis, provided of course that one is looking at the right numbers. I personally also increasingly feel that a sense of modesty must go and in hand with leadership to develop better perspectives on events. Mainly in having an appreciation that there is always more to learn and more to find out about a particular problem or situation.
Leaders who have ways of gathering and accessing more information will be better placed to answer questions such as “is there a different way?” or even “what is the worse that could happen if we …” Ultimately, history will always be the one to judge if any of the paths not taken could have turned out better. But pre-empting dangers, obstacles and challenges; is possible by looking at everything through many lenses. Going back to the driving analogy. Successfully passing a hazard perception test that asks candidates to pre-empt, identify and react to hazards happening on the road ahead is necessary to obtain one driving licence in the UK.
The next time you’re about to make a decision, think about the paths not taken and remember to look around before moving forward.