How do you change the future?

A number of years ago, my husband, son and I toured Chartres Cathedral, a few miles outside of Paris. We were delighted to have the opportunity to join a one-hour tour with noted Cathedral author and historian Malcolm Miller, who studied and lectured there for many years. His tour of the magnificent structure includes “reading” and explaining the meanings of the stained-glass windows and other architectural elements.

When we ended the tour at the South Portal, which portrays the Last Judgment and the separation of the saved and the damned, Mr. Miller’s comments struck me as particularly meaningful. He asked if anyone knew why the judgment took place at the end of time. When no one answered his question, he suggested that people cannot know the results of their actions until the final day.

Later, I thought about this idea when I had the opportunity to hear author Stephen King talk about his book, 11/22/63 at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston. Our trip to the Library serendipitously coincided with a reading and on-stage conversation between King and novelist Tom Perrotta.

King’s book is based on the unrealistic but intriguing notion that stopping the assassination of John Kennedy could have changed much of recent history. His reading included a conversation between Jake Epping, the protagonist, and another character. Jake discusses the historical events he believes could have been different if Kennedy had lived. These include the level of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the death of Robert Kennedy, the rise of the certain terrorist organizations, and the death of Martin Luther King with the race riots that followed.

I won’t dwell on the religious implications of Malcolm Miller’s comments or the plot of Stephen King’s book, but I want to consider how our actions affect others and how they can change the future for better or worse. This is particularly important in the context of how leaders change the future for their groups, organizations, families, friends and strangers.

It is a given that leaders must have a vision for the future. However, in day-to-day decisions and interactions it’s easy to forget that what we do does indeed change the future. A flip but hurtful comment or thoughtless action can have unimaginable consequences. A plan that is entered without full consideration for its implications can affect many people in often surprising ways.

Putin’s recent decision to invade Ukraine is an important case in point. He believed the process would be quick and that his army was more powerful than it was. This resulted in thousands of Ukranian and Russian deaths and at the time of this writing a stronger NATO than before.

Corporate and organizational decisions also affect the health, safety and well-being of people outside of the organizations. These include cigarette company sales, mining waste, and air and water pollution. They also include social and cultural implications that may bring benefit or harm.

It is not possible to envision all the ramifications of comments or actions, but I believe it is important to be aware of how they can affect others. I also think it is important to think about how to minimize or prevent their impact. I offer below some actions we should consider as we make decisions every day. I am sure there are others.

  • Be clear on mission. How do specific actions or behaviors further or detract from the mission? What action takes valuable time away from the mission? What do you want to contribute? What value do you add?
  • Remain centered or mindful of events and surroundings. Be aware of one’s impact on other people as it occurs. Reflect on actions and emotions of self and others after the fact.
  • Be sensitive to the physical, emotional and social impact of business and corporate decisions. That means being willing to admit mistakes or apologize for harm.
  • Take the long view. What are the possible implications of comments or actions? How will others take a particular comment? At the end of one’s life, what does one wants to remember—making lots of money or making a difference? And, possibly most important, for what does one want to be remembered?

How do your actions affect others? How do your decisions change the future?

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Photo credit: Pinguino,  Creative Commons 2.0 attribution, taken 24 Feb. 2007.

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