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Leaders must meet their future selves

5 min read


Recently, social psychologists discovered a problem most of us have in preparing for the future: we think of our future selves as strangers — as different people altogether. Valuable insight into this problem is provided in research by two university educators — Hal Hershfield, an assistant professor in the marketing department of New York University’s Stern School of Business, and Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University and author of “The Willpower Instinct.”

In experiments with undergraduates, Hershfield discovered that students who were shown a digitally aged image of themselves allocated twice as much to their retirement accounts as those who didn’t see themselves as they aged. Hershfield says that “looking ahead in time and feeling a sense of connection to one’s future self can impact long-term financial decision-making, converting a consumer into a saver.” People with this “future self-continuity” also accumulate more assets than others, including owning their own homes and having bigger bank accounts.

McGonigal has pointed out that connections can also be made along shorter future-oriented timelines. For instance, she suggests writing a post-dated letter from your future self to your present self about specific achievements and successes in the future.

For leaders, it’s especially important to bridge the present and future. Leaders have to define the future not only for themselves but also for their organizations. Still, with the extraordinary demands and difficulties of each present day, it’s easy to let the urgency of today cause you to squander the opportunities of tomorrow.

Odds are, the success of your organization will depend on how well you figure out the future. Here are five strategies to help crystallize the future into the present moment and draw you closer to your future self.

  1. See yourself as the leader you could become. Productivity guru Jason W. Womack, author of “Your Best Just Got Better,” advises that to strengthen and build your professional capabilities, you should set a 15-minute timer and then write, in as much detail as possible, about a future ideal day. Apply Womack’s advice to describing your ideal future. Then ask yourself: What will it take to make this happen?
  2. Create your future in the here and now. Peter Drucker, the legendary father of modern management, taught that you can deliberately and systematically build your future into the present moment with your thoughts, actions, ideas, decisions and commitments. His work on taking the best approach to constructing your future is illuminated in my book “Create Your Future the Peter Drucker Way: Developing and Applying a Forward-Focused Mindset.”
  3. Design a better tomorrow for others. Joshua David and Robert Hammond were the driving forces behind the development of the High Line elevated park in New York City. Today, the park is a smashing success, attracting more than 4 million visitors annually and boosting real estate values in the surrounding area. It took 10 years for High Line to become a reality, however, and neither David nor Hammond had experience in urban planning or design. But they did have the vision and dedication to save an elevated rail line in danger of demolition. One way you can design a better tomorrow for others is by mentoring, volunteering, or teaching.
  4. Resist going only for quick wins. Though change can be difficult, it’s an inevitable facet of the future. A crucial part of change is how we consider our relationship to time—specifically, whether we look at time from a perspective of lack or abundance. Tom Butler-Bowdon, author of “Never Too Late to Be Great: The Power of Thinking Long,” believes that when you have a long-term view of the future, you’re more ready, willing, and able to build things that will unfold over years and decades, rather than going only for easy, short-term results.
  5. Think with a beginner’s mind. Shunryu Suzuki, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and author of the book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” writes: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” In her work coaching and advising business leaders, Bruna Martinuzzi, founder of Clarion Enterprises and author of “Presenting with Credibility,” challenges clients to adopt the beginner’s mind approach. This isn’t easy for most leaders, she says, but it can pave the way for continuous learning and development.

You may not need a digitally aged image of yourself to take action as a leader today. If you practice these five strategies, you can meet your future self.

Bruce Rosenstein is a leading management writer and speaker. A former researcher and writer for USA Today, he is managing editor of Leader to Leader and author of “Create Your Future the Peter Drucker Way” (McGraw-Hill) and “Living in More Than One World” (Berrett-Koehler). For more information, visit