3 Ways to See and Lead Into the Future

Published August 19, 2019


Leading OrganizationsVision

A key feature that distinguishes the best leaders from the rest is the ability to anticipate the future. The best leaders have learned how to see into the future and not just react to it.

Not sure you understand the difference?

  • Simply stated, reactionary leadership is like taking the garbage out after my wife has reminded me three times. (Trust me, that is not good!) But anticipatory leadership is the happy look on her face when I think of it first and she says, “Oh, thanks for taking the garbage out!”
  • Or reactionary leadership is like taking my car in for an oil change once the warning light on the dashboard starts flashing red (again, something I’ve done and is not good); but anticipatory leadership is a smooth-running car because I’m taking my car in for an oil change every 3,000 miles.

In your business or not-for-profit, the best leaders are not reactionary leaders but anticipatory leaders. Anticipatory leaders solve organizational problems before they get big and see opportunities that others overlook. Anticipatory leaders develop the discipline to be able to look around the corner to the future and see what is next.

Anticipatory leadership is not so much a gift as it is a discipline that every leader can develop.

Reactionary leaders respond to economic changes by making sudden last minute reductions and budget cuts leaving their team feel uncertain and nervous. But anticipatory leaders prepare their team for the financial challenges ahead and guide them smoothly through turbulent times. Reactionary leaders observe changes in culture and complain about them to their team; but anticipatory leaders understand the cultural shifts and lead their team to take advantage of innovative opportunity.

The anticipatory leader is able to develop a feel for the forthcoming and plan accordingly. You can become a leader who anticipates the future. Anticipatory leadership is not so much a gift as it is a discipline that every leader can develop.

Here are three ways you can become an anticipatory leader. Do these and you will not have to just react to the future, you will see it coming!


1. PEOPLE: Interact With People That Are Futuristic.

It is absolutely true that you become like the people with whom you spend the most time. So, if you want to be an anticipatory leader you need to spend time with people who are futuristic. StrengthFinders uses the term “futuristic”  to describe people who can “peer over the horizon and see in detail what the future might hold…it could be a better product, better team or a better world.”

Futuristic people often fall into in two categories: entrepreneurs and thought leaders.

Entrepreneurs: Be intentional about spending time with entrepreneurs. They have no past and if they don’t anticipate the future they will soon go out of business and will not eat! Learn from them. That is one reason why I have made it a discipline to consistently spend time with church planters. Church planters are the entrepreneurs of the church world and they live on the edge where innovation happens. Many of my best hunches about the future for the large multi-site church I lead have come from church planters.

Thought Leaders: Thought leaders have deep insights into the future based on research and the ability to see trends. Read their books; listen to their podcasts; lean in whenever you get the opportunity to talk with them. As a young church planter, I had the privilege of living in the same town as Lyle Schaller, a brilliant thought leader. (Don’t know the name? Google him!). He wrote and edited almost 100 books on church life and was once named the most influential protestant leader in America by the Los Angeles Times. I figured out where Lyle regularly hung out in the local library and every time I needed answers I would go there with a list of questions in hopes of picking his brain.


2. PLACES: Visit Places That Are Creating The Future.

There are some places where the thrill of innovation is just in the air. If you want to be an anticipatory leader you need visit places that are on the cutting edge of the future. In the last several years I have intentionally made trips to the Silicon Valley to visit Google, Atlanta to visit Chick-Fil-A and to Berkeley California to spend time with my friends at The Way Christian Center. Why? I went there to give me a glimpse of the future and to help me anticipate what is next as a leader.

  • I went to Google to learn about big data and artificial intelligence.
  • I went to Chick-Fil-A to learn from them about leadership development and scaling.
  • I spent time with my African-American friends at The Way Christian Center to feel what it’s like to be a minority and better understand their concerns.

Once a year determine to put yourself in one of those settings. Many of them are not far and all of them are available if not in person, via the internet.

Remember, when you develop the ability to anticipate the future and you will distinguish yourself from other leaders.


3. PLAY: Play With The Future.

One of the most fun ways to anticipate the future is to actually create it. Anticipatory leaders will run innovative pilot projects to see what works and then re-evaluate. They do low cost probes. They take a ‘skunk works’ approach that gives permission to a few people to try-out ideas without committing to being all-in.

In the last few months, our church has played with the future in a variety of ways: we have started online small groups using the Zoom platform. So far, it seems like it is something that works and will scale. We have tried using big data in our marketing efforts to specifically target people through social media who aren’t going to church. We gave a Monday night worship service a try for a set period of time and then re-evaluated. It seemed to reach a whole different group of people.

Remember, when you develop the ability to anticipate the future and you will distinguish yourself from other leaders.

Start applying these three disciplines to see the future, and never again just react to it!

About the Author
Dave Ferguson Founding & Lead Pastor for Community Christian Church.

Dave Ferguson

Founding & Lead Pastor

Community Christian Church (Naperville, IL)

Dave Ferguson is an award-winning author, founding and lead pastor of Chicago’s Community Christian Church, a missional multi-site community considered one of the most influential churches in America. Dave is also the visionary for the international church-planting movement NewThing and president of the Exponential Conference. His most recent book is Hero Maker: Five Essential Practices for Leaders to Multiply Leaders.