In the snowy mountains of Switzerland, in the town of Davos, world leaders and thinkers have come together for their annual pow-wow to discuss how to address the world’s biggest challenges. Much of the dialogue emerging from the event seems to be pointing, somewhat predictably, to the recent economic crisis facing the world’s major economies, and to how we all need to become more resilient to massive change. Davos’ founder himself made a call for more strategic vision setting rather than temporary fixes. It reminds me of the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio, which I attended and was honored to speak at last year. Even at Rio (an event that happens much less frequently), the ability for our leaders to collectively address and agree on long term plans seemed impossible. And yet, with the challenges we face as a species we can’t carry on assuming this theory of change will work.

We are custodians of this planet – a position that is made scarily clear by the fact that we are apparently in the era of the Anthopocene – the geological moment or period from which humans have significantly altered the planet. The changes we have made to Earth, assuming they are reversible, will take a long long time to fix.

So why do we find it so hard to think, but more importantly, act long-term? Here are three ways in which this evolutionary trait prevents us from working towards our personal and collective goals: as individuals, as leaders, and as leaders working together:

The challenge for individuals

We have evolved to make the most of what we have at hand – our ancestors didn’t have the abundance of food and pleasures that an increasing, fortunate number of us have readily to hand. We ate what was available as we didn’t know where the next meal might come from, or who might come and steal our catch. These same instincts don’t serve us well in today’s world. In fact they are helping our race towards mass obesity – one third of America is now obese.

“To control our brains, we have to be mistrustful of our brains. We have to recognize they are the vehicle to invite us to do things that at some point in our evolutionary past may have been very useful, but have gotten completely out of control.”

The End of Overeating, by David Kessler

This same instinct for instant gratification is one of the reasons why we find it so hard to resist smoking, caffeine, checking social media, constantly monitoring our inbox for emails, and overeating.

“Left unmanaged and unregulated, these same technologies have the potential to overwhelm us. The relentless urgency that characterizes most corporate cultures undermines creativity, quality, engagement, thoughtful deliberation, and, ultimately, performance.” 

Tony Schwartz, Catherine McCarthy Ph.D.

The way that we work in today’s corporate environments doesn’t help either. Despite an increased focus on organizational and individual ‘higher’ purpose, we still rely on annual or quarterly targets that force managers to think short term. We pile pressure on employees, deadlines seem to loom ever sooner, software seems to encourage multi-tasking, and calendars seem to be constantly double or triple booked. With all these competing things begging our attention, is it any surprise that we find it hard to step back and question where it’s all going? This way of working leads to an increasing dissatisfaction, and despite all the long hours put in, an increasing sense that we’re still not achieving what we should.

“The answer is grounded in a simple assumption, deeply embedded in organizational life and in our own belief systems. It’s that human beings operate most productively in the same one-dimensional way computers do: continuously, at high speeds, for long periods of time, running multiple programs at the same time.” 

Tony Schwartz, Catherine McCarthy Ph.D.

The problem with leaders thinking long term

In the run up to Obama’s first mid-term election, it was clear that he was struggling to be as bold as his inaugural speech declared. His intentions to revolutionise the health system, create more equality for homosexuals, and still keep the economy on track were waning. Is it any surprise though? With such lofty goals and such a relatively short timescale, it’s tough to make radical changes. And yet, that’s what gets you elected – big promises. When was the last president that was elected for promising to just keep things on an even keel?

Of course, heads of state don’t all suffer this problem. For example, Gross National Happiness (an index of national happiness that started in Bhutan and is now being touted as the next big thing by many heads of state) is a term coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Kings have a very different outlook – they don’t have to worry about four or five year cycles to achieve their goals and targets, and as we can see Jigme came up with a pretty smart innovation during his tenure. But is it really that simple? Should we just extend the reign of country heads or CEOs for that matter?

In the corporate world, leaders have an arguably even more short-term focus. The average tenure of a Fortune 500 company was 4.6 years in 2011. CEOs of public companies have to worry about the sentiment of shareholders and their dividends, whilst also being incentivised by their year end bonuses (the two being rarely linked or strongly related)

The challenge to collectively think long-term

As I’ve written about this in my article about the Earth Summit, it’s very rare in our recent history as a species that we have managed to agree on realistic goals and actions that have created reversible affects on some of our biggest challenges. One notable exception is HIV – as of 2009, the disease was recorded as being in decline for the first time. It is not clear why exactly it has been on the decline, as spend vs incidence doesn’t correlate well. However, one thing is clear: since its detection in the early 80s, a global awareness of its threat to human life increased rapidly over the coming decade, and today gets 23 pence in every pound spent on development aid for health. Health experts say this is unbalanced when it only accounts for 4% of all deaths globally.

Is this success to do with the ability for world leaders to collaborate on shared issues, or more down to the fact that it was actually a problem that was readily available (see availability heuristic) and causal – hundreds of young men were being struck down in the prime of their lives in LA in 1982. Compare this to the melting of the ice caps and the global rise in temperature. Although it’s much harder to be a climate change skeptic these days, you can’t deny it’s a complex area. The causality of investing more in fracking and the incidence of acid rain, or health problems from polluting local water supplies is much more complex. (There have been over 1,000 documented cases of water contamination next to areas of gas drilling as well as cases of sensory, respiratory, and neurological damage due to ingested contaminated water.)

With the need to find ways to behave today in the right way to protect our future selves, what can we do to encourage long-term thinking? I’d love to hear your ideas. I’ll follow up with some of my own thoughts in a future article.

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