On Leadership and Leading in the Present Moment

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now”  ~ Martin Luther King

Dr. King’s statement about the “fierce urgency of now”, extracted from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech given at the Lincoln memorial on August 28, 1963, resonates even stronger in the second decade of the 21st century. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism”, he continued.

For leaders, our times are indeed very urgent in many ways.

The Organizational Landscape

The Fierce Urgency of Now – Great Leaders Are Found in the Present Moment

Although Martin Luther King was referring to racial inequality in America, we can readily adapt his insightful expression to today’s American organizational landscape.

There is truly a fierce urgency among organizations today as they strive to not only keep a step ahead of the competition, avoid irrelevance and obsolescence, but also find and take on initiatives that enlist, enroll, and engage their people in the face of many unsettling issues.

Among these issues are:

  • An unsure and anemic economic recovery
  • Stagnated growth
  • Heightened fear by uncertainty
  • And other destructive emotional toxins in our workplace

Fast-Paced Learning

It is fairly clear that we have become accustomed to the “white water” turbulence, the constant struggle to keep up with technological progress, and the many fierce learning urgencies of the present moment.

  • Are we in transition?
  • Are these good trends?
  • Are we at some type of critical juncture at which we must forge a new, untested direction?

You may be asking yourself, “Is there a light at the end of this tunnel”

21st-Century Tunnel

I believe that the phrase, “light at the end of the tunnel” could easily be retired from our vernacular. In our now, there is no tunnel and therefore no end to it – that was a 20th century analogy. The 21st century “tunnel” is instead a series of winding roads that take you from an indeterminate starting point to other points along the route and revisits the starting point several times.

There is no end to this route.

When you see the starting point again, as well as some of the intermediate points along the shifting and changing route, it’s like you are seeing it for the first time – because of the change and learning that happened in you along the way.

There’s no gradualism, or steady movement – only punctuated equilibrium.

Keep Moving in The Now

Therefore, we need a new analogy for the light at the end of the tunnel in our now. Perhaps we could use, “There’s another light – keep moving!” or some such phrase meaning that lights come in and fade out as we progress through the nodes or synapses of our journey.

They are dynamic and disappear as fast as they appear. We are living in a context of complexity – where the number of independent variables is much greater than the number of dependent variables.

Conclusion: Our present moment, our now, is exactly the place that leaders need to be.

Leading the Present Moment

What kind of leaders do we need in our present moment? I propose that there are several important characteristics of leaders who are and will be effective in our era of complexity:

  1. They focus on organizational coherence – the constant alignment and realignment of context and coordination in today’s organizations.
  2. They make innovation desirable and inviting – they know how to manage complex change.
  3. They ensure that learning is effective and linked to vision and mission.


In complexity leadership, coherence refers to an organizational way of working in which the leader’s primary responsibilities are 1) Set the vision (context) and 2) Ensure that processes and resources are available and are being used to eventually attain that vision (coordination).

Therefore: Coherence = Context + Coordination

If you observe the leaders in such organizations, you will see that they are very adept at finding ways to promote the vision while constantly ensuring resource availability and coordination. Organizations that are run this way by their leaders are usually characterized by a high degree of agility, flexibility, achievement, and a noticeable decrease in workplace fear.

They are generally very successful at mission accomplishment.


Don’t try to innovate for the future. Innovate for the present. Peter Drucker

The days of the five-year plans are over. The most important thing today’s leaders must learn is how to make innovation happen now and in the organization’s favor. These leaders are not fooled by the façade of innovation such as taking on a large enterprise resource planning (ERP) software package that may have been written in the 1980s and usually forces a series of inefficient processes on the organization – stifling creativity.

In other words, one size does not fit all in our now.

Great leaders are always looking for ways to innovate that involve extensible pilots and good ideas from their people. The resulting change management is much more powerful and durable when the innovation comes from within.


 I hear… I forget

I see…. I remember

I do… I know

~ Confucius

Today’s leader must be very knowledgeable about how adults learn and how an organization builds and employs its collective memory. Experiential knowledge is very powerful – learning by doing.

  • About half of what we learn in our lifetimes comes from experience
  • Another 20% or so comes to us from coaches and mentors
  • Another 20% more from our peers
  • A very slim 10% wedge comes from formal education

This means that approximately 90% of what we learn (and retain) in life is experiential.

Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn. – C.S. Lewis

On Present and Future Moments

Organizations need to learn what will make them successful in the moment and in the future moment. Every employee needs to understand the new learning cycle of the 21st century – sense the future as it emerges, unlearn, learn, and then reinforce the new learned behavior.

Summary: Leaders who bring coherence, innovation, and learning in tough times will be the ones who will distinguish themselves in this decade – identify them and learn from them – become one of them.


Never miss an issue of Linked 2 Leadership, subscribe today!
Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Dr. Robert Brescia
Dr. Robert Brescia is Executive Director at JBS Public Leadership Institute

He teaches young Texans about leadership, ethics, and public service
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook | Web | Book | Skype: robert.brescia

Image Sources: media.smithsonianmag.com

L2L Contributing Author

1 Comment

  1. kwalitisme on July 16, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    Reblogged this on kwalitisme.