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Permission To Think: Leadership Postures and Rhythms For The Future

For leaders of the future to serve others effectively, and to remain resilient, relevant, and available, implies experimenting with thinking postures. In this whitewater reflection I explore the need and space for leaders’ strategic and anticipatory orientation, and avenues for rhythmic exposure to the unfamiliar.


It’s remarkable how most of our enduring questions surface in songs. ‘Que Sera, Sera’ is one of those songs, with tender questions about the future and purpose, about identity and outcomes; “Will I get there?” it asks. The response is at best a cheerful, traditional shrug of the shoulders “Whatever will be will be! The future’s not ours to see.” These questions are not so much about cognitive closure but about validation, and engaging with an open-ended future. Leaders who engage with, and serve others in shaping emergent futures, likely face a larger share of these questions. What posture do you take to retain a strategic orientation, an ability to freely think and engage in the face of increasingly harsh and complex challenges?

Keeping It Together’ vs. Permission To Hide

Adapting to sudden, new conditions requires time and preparedness, luxuries that you don’t always have when strained. Under pressure, you tend to outsource or delegate imaginative and critical thinking elements, instead of guarding and leveraging them. Consider the alarming rise of social and motivational fatigue, difficulty in prioritising, sleep deprivation, and the discomfort in transitioning across goals or even conversations. Many of these symptoms that once seemed confined to trauma or battle stress, are now endemic. Add layers of information overload, the continuing havoc ripples of the pandemic, and then there’s the news! Decision fatigue doesn’t sound unreasonable for the foreseeable future. You may even empathise with the ostrich, driven to withdraw and hide its head in the sand. This disengagement and the erosion of resilience and hope, are bellwethers for system-wide well-being and productivity decrements.

Cascading Tendencies and Implications

In spite of well-intentioned goals of future readiness and strategic agility, leaders generally remain asymmetrically incentivised to choose fire-fighting ‘over everything else’. In effect, pulling the proverbial futures rug from under our feet, and setting the scene for more fire-fighting. In this fight vs flight mode, individual and organizational level behaviours and decisions tend to mirror each other and coalesce as reinforcing loops. This continues to weaken both the creative urge to add value through experiments and conversations, and the cognitive pause necessary for sensemaking.

Further, consider situational awareness - the perception, comprehension and anticipation of the constantly evolving state of the environment. Gaps in situational awareness are the leading causes of airline and military aviation mishaps involving human error. This isn’t very different from piloting institutions and communities in strained times. Gordon Macdonald referred to this scenario as a pressurized society: when the victims prefer to follow someone else’s benchmarked-reaction to environments, over noticing and dealing with what is happening within and around them.

In leadership contexts, when peers or competitors prefer this stance of ‘not needing to reflect’, then, carving space to think or engage with open-endedness is an ‘act of creative transgression’ against the norm. So, with the future of leadership relevance and effectiveness at stake, what conditions offer individuals the space to recover, engage and lead?

Transitioning Across Difficult Boundaries

Leadership effectiveness requires imaginative and physical conditioning to steer between ‘optimal and unwelcome conditions’. Being adept at reallocating thinking and imagining resources between standardised workflows, and ‘playing’ with chaos means adapting and rotating skills rhythmically across fluid and messy boundaries.

As a leader who considers the future, how can you steer between action and reflection? How will you confidently experiment with decisions and ‘still’ cultivate hope?

To maintain the ability to transition to the future, I find a few concepts vital for resilient action. One of these concepts is psychological flexibility, which is the ability to cope with, and adjust to, distress under strain. The second, cognitive flexibility, is the ability to switch thinking between multiple concepts. These two flexibilities constitute shifts in perspectives, that are core to unmasking apparently insurmountable barriers that can overwhelm and immobilise decision making. In essence, they represent the perceived permission to explore diverse options, and also the freedom to choose between them.

Since your organisational productivity, innovation, social cohesion, and mental wellbeing increasingly depend on this capacity for disciplined and rhythmic switching, how might you address this vulnerability?

Carving SpacesTo Ventilate Thinking

One example is to schedule ‘nothing time’, so you can process, think, and recharge. You can improve on this by blending this ‘deliberate’ nothing time say, with walks or cooking. Paul Graham refers to this as “necessity for thinking without trying to”, underlining that creating the space, structures, and freedom for moving your gaze and context is vital. LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner described his “scheduled buffer” times as “the single most important productivity tool.” Others refer to using structured conversations as a scaffold to declutter and stimulate reflection, with a coach or a trusted colleague. Generally speaking, this is music to frazzled leaders’ ears because it retrieves the ostrich head - buried and hidden in firefighting mode - and gifts it back some space to breathe.

I imagine this dynamic posture resembling the breast-stroke. Submerged, you start off your long focused glide underwater with a strong kick. You cover a large operational distance underwater, and rhythmically surface to breathe, enquire, to ventilate your thinking and perspective - with every kick and scoop. Cyclically, shifting your gaze to reorient and then returning to the deep with renewed vitality. As a CLA metaphor level flip this could be a transition from the overwhelmed withdrawal, to active wonder and agency. That can be the difference for you as a leader, between being forced to react to the environment, and engaging with it, even influencing it.

In my work I observe how organization leaders adapt their thinking to deal with overwhelming choices and distractions, and engage better with stakeholders. We experimented blending strategic foresight, with music as one variable to explore creating space for unfettered thinking. When things worked well, the common threads were, an easy-flow, open ended facilitated dialogue and world music from an unfamiliar region. These seemed to provide the most supportive recliner for ‘wonder’ and ‘new creative associations’. Rationing this rhythmic exposure to the unfamiliar, somehow facilitates changing your posture to reframe and experiment with the issues at hand.

There are times you need to follow the templates, the algorithms and the storylines. At other times you need jazz! Sufficient space and freedom to improvise, to rhythmically explore new directions, and return to the ‘conversations’ together and in-time for chorus!


  1. Gabriel Weinberg, Lauren McCann Super Thinking (Penguin Random House, 2019) 63


  3. Endsley, M. R. (1995). A taxonomy of situation awareness errors. In R. Fuller, N. Johnston, & N. McDonald (Eds.), Human Factors in Aviation Operations (pp. 287- 292). Aldershot, England: Avebury Aviation, Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

  4. Doorley J.D., Goodman F.R., et al (2022, January 30 ) Psychological flexibility: What we know, what we do not know, and what we think we know Compass

  5. Uddin L.Q.( 2022, February 01) Cognitive and behavioural flexibility: neural mechanisms and clinical considerations Nature Reviews Neuroscience

  6. Warren Buffett’s Schedule Book

  7. Gabriel Weinberg, Lauren McCann Super Thinking (Penguin Random House, 2019) 71

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