New Stories for the New Year: Faith in the Future

New Year’s Eve is special, because the day compels us to focus on future potential, rather than dwell on past frustrations. The airwaves, online space and newspapers are all filled with the thoughts of pundits looking forward to 2012’s projected happenings, trends, and surprises.

Most will be wrong, as just as surely will I.  But last year I did say “2011 will be the new 1981.” And so it was, at least here in the UK. In both years there was a Royal Wedding, street violence, financial turmoil. For next year, it’s a no-brainer to say “2012 will be the new 1982.” For Brits, that holds the memory of the Falklands conflict.  (No surprise that Hollywood has picked up on this with the timely release of Meryl Streep’s Iron Lady).

There was trouble in the Middle East, multiple air crashes, protest against nuclear weapons and visible cracks in Soviet power; global financial turmoil triggered by the Mexican debt crisis. But for me, 1982 was a wonderful year. That was when my life-changing and enduring 30 year love-affair with Brazil began. And in 2012 I plan to be back there with renewed enthusiasm for this great nation its wonderful people, to share eagerly in their unbounded faith in the future, a faith at long last justified by the benign turn of Fortune’s wheel.

The common denominator of our recent times has been the unexpected, and near-universal inability to keep to targets in the face of tumultuous change. World stock markets lost US$ 6.3 trillion in 2011. Expectations of every kind tumbled, as the Eurozone crisis lurched from summit to ineffectual summit. The BRICS went off the boil, with India’s currency collapse, Russian democratic rumblings, China hitting the brakes, and even mighty Brazil pausing in its headlong advance. Pick a crisis anywhere, and nobody knows whether it’s just half begun, or already half over.

For Obama and many other new political leaders, 2012 will be a year of elections; for old ones, the moment of overthrow. For business leaders and CEOs, another precious year eaten out of their short mandate to make a difference before supervisory boards, stockholders and stakeholders lose patience and cast them aside. For investors, another year of crab-like scuttling sideways in search of lower financial risk.

The world is moving into ever more uncertain times, in which the only certainty is to actively embrace change and to look forwards. As the old year drops away, we break from our collective and individual behaviour of looking backwards, with the “business as usual” of binding ourselves to old commitments, targets, or goals conceived in a past that has suddenly become very, very different.

But what if every day could be like this one? A day to look forward, not back. To become more trusting in our ability to wake up every morning and actively shape the future or to create new outcomes? What if the possibilities that we could create as we drive forwards would become the real yardstick of our effectiveness, perhaps more than the retrospective score-keeping of analysts, commentators, or planners? We might be freer to change much, much more that’s really important.

The poet Goethe wrote that for those with faith in the future, the universe will always provide for those courageous enough to hold hands and jump: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!” Napoleon too was a forward looker, saying strategy was only useful retrospectively as a way of explaining the battles he had successfully fought.

America’s greatest president Teddy Roosevelt is a bit unfashionable these days, but his homage to action and resolute determination to change the future, speaks volumes: “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles … the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena ….. who strives valiantly .. who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

As you’re reading this blog you probably believe, just like me, that inspiring stories lead to real change in the real world. That’s what I have been writing about through 2011 and will be further exploring in 2012. So my recipe for the handling uncertainties of 2012 is to emulate Hotspur in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1: “out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.”  The way to handle a nettle without getting a sting, is to grasp it firmly. Just like the stinging nettle, we must grasp change the future throws our way, and see the flower within it.

What’s abundantly clear to me is that the only convincing story to tell in these times is one of change. Not the tired old story we read in the annual report section marked “exceptional items” where CEOs explain why real performance failed to match past guidance, or how the goalposts unexpectedly moved. Not the dull apologies of ministers and central bankers explaining why inflation is up, growth down, and our collective patience abused. Or the politicians’ coded change stories of downsizing, unemployment, or diminished expectations for both the old and young.

I mean changing the stories we tell. Stop telling stories that are apologies for the inevitable gap between past plans and present reality. Start telling bolder stories that are inspirational calls to diminish the gap between present reality and potential futures, as measured in terms of higher levels of achievement, of service, and enduring human values.

Start telling stories that fulfil the true function of leadership. This is not to explain away the past or even the present, all based on empirical data or sharp argument, but to present a vision of the future. To present possibilities around which ordinary people can align themselves and travel towards with determination, cheerfulness, gallantry, perhaps even joyfulness, regardless of personal hardship. By definition no leader can know exactly where he (or she) is asking others to follow. But follow they will, if the tone is right.

In the world of business, the basic job of the CEO is making the future happen. Each leader does this by conceiving, presenting and then delivering change. CEOs set their stamp upon a company by redesigning the mission and vision; by securing active engagement of the workforce and stakeholders; and then by execution. All this takes the courage to show one’s passion.

Curiously, all these functions can be delivered most effectively through the medium of storytelling: If the mission and vision are not presented as an active story people feel associated with, the project will surely fail. If the CEO cannot present his/her business plan as a truly engaging story with values and a proposition for service people can believe in, it will fail. And if the CEO cannot lead by the power of example, and mobilise the power of “local heroes” to tell the story of “how we did it,” then execution will fail.

That’s why I’m heading into 2012 more confident than ever that the attribute of storytelling is the best possible tool not only for dealing with uncertainty, but for galvanizing people to realise their future potential, both individually and as teams. Whatever the year brings, I  hope I’ll have the courage to nurture passion and courageously embrace opportunities I do have the power to change.

I’ll be taking the story of change to Brazil, finding new possibilities and new business partners. I’ll be helping leaders there to design and define stories that everyone can understand, and that help its emerging multinationals to successfully carry their message across the seaways separating Europe from South America.

So through 2012 I’ll be shuttling between the old world and the new. And I’ll be working here with Story fountain in Europe, where, more than ever, we believe that simplicity and clarity of narrative will help companies to navigate whatever stormy weather is coming. We’re confident that whatever the economy does, we will find more companies willing to change those advisors helping them to tell their story.

Above all, Europe needs stories of change that can make a measurable difference to a future it is in our collective power to change for something much, much better.

Happy New Year everyone!

Richard House