by Bill Taylor for HBR
January 10, 2022

There has never been a tougher time to be a leader, whether that’s running a big company or being in charge of a small team, Bill Taylor writes in this piece. He offers three sets of questions to help leaders focus on what’s important right now. The first set involves managing time: how to handle the chaos of the present while also creating space to focus on the future. The second set involves the personal stress of leadership: how to solve problems that your organization has never encountered before, without burning out or giving up? The third set involves rank-and-file morale: how to encourage people to stay upbeat and energetic when it is so easy to feel anxious and beaten down. If you can devise answers to these three sets of questions, you have a chance to pass the leadership test of our time.

Leaders are facing two relentless sources of pressure right now. The first is the intense demand to perform— to deliver excellent short-term results despite radical shifts in what customers need and want, where and how people choose to work, and whether supply chains work at all. The second is the urgent need to transform — to reimagine the future of your marketplace and your workplace, given these shifts, and to reinvent your company’s strategy and culture to win that future.

Dealing with either source of pressure is tough, which is why so many leaders seem so anxious and stressed. But meeting both of them, at the same time, can feel truly daunting. The challenge of performing while transforming has become the leadership test of our time.

So how do leaders meet that challenge? How do they deliver for today even as they disrupt for tomorrow? By wrestling with three sets of questions that are hard to answer in the best of environments but are especially tough in a period of such turmoil and uncertainty.

The first set of questions involves managing time. 

How can you handle the chaos of the present — the onslaught of Slack messages, customer crises, and people problems — and also create space to hatch the future? How can you avoid getting overwhelmed by day-to-day tasks that feel so urgent, at the expense of game-changing initiatives that are truly important?

Answering those questions starts with finding concrete ways, organizationally and individually, to literally make time for the future. Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40, the iconic, old-school American brand, worried that his colleagues were so focused on crisp execution today that they were missing opportunities for game-changing innovations that would define tomorrow. So, he created Team Tomorrow, a small group of senior executives from R&D, marketing, and finance, and tasked the team with looking for exciting opportunities 10 to 15 years down the road.

This was not a big-budget, standalone innovation department. It was a small group of seasoned executives who were relieved temporarily of their obligations to the present so they could find ideas that would shape WD-40 for decades to come. Executives cycled through the team, moving their focus from the present to the future and back again, and the result was a series of product, technology, and brand innovations that lifted the company’s performance.