May 28, 2022 7 min read

Leadership Requires Understanding Time Differently

Human time is different from mechanical clock time

Our habitual ways of looking at time in linear and spatial terms can unknowingly limit us when it comes to planning our work and lives.

How is human time different from mechanical clock time? Understanding the difference can change how leaders approach business and life situations like setting goals/objectives and scenario planning.


The future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens.

– Rainer Maria Rilke [1]

The linear conception of time

We are accustomed to looking at time linearly or in other words clock time. If it is 10am right now, what happened earlier at 9 am is what is past and what is going to happen at 11am is the future. We carry over this same notion of mechanical time into our work and lives.

Because time is abstract we use a more concrete metaphor like space to understand it. [2]

For most of us, space is the concrete thing that time is like. Studies reveal that people all over the world imagine time as though it were a spatial dimension, which is why we say that the past is behind us and the future is in front of us. We think and speak as though we were actually moving away from a yesterday that is located over there and toward a tomorrow that is located 180 degrees about.

– Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness [2]

But is it as mechanical and straightforward as it looks? While this straightforward way of looking at time works most of the time, there are situations when a different way of looking at time can be more helpful and open up new possibilities.

The present as happening before the past.

We think of time in terms of the past, present, and future where past comes first, followed by the present, and then the future. We see them as distinct and discrete points on a line without much overlap.

Upon closer examination though, notice how the past is nothing but a series of present moments that have already happened. Thus for us to have a past we needed to be in a present moment first. The present moment had to happen before it became the past. From that perspective, the present comes before the past.

The present as causal

This is important because it makes our present causal rather than our past. While the past obviously does play an important role in our lives and there are important lessons we have learned, from this perspective the past is not as causal as we usually think of it.

Of course we are historical beings. There are aspects of us that have developed over time and will stay with us. But the opposite is also true - that in every present moment we have a choice of taking a different action that has nothing to do with the past.

In certain contexts, many of us live constrained by the past whether it is regrets, wrong decisions, chips that didn’t fall our way or notions about what we are capable and not capable of.

Understanding the present moment as causal, rather than the past, changes our relationship to both the past and present. It puts more power and choice in our hands because we can always choose our actions in the present moment.

In this way, we become the cause in our lives, instead of being the effect at the mercy of our pasts. Instead of our present and future being just extensions of the past, we are actively constructing not just our future but future versions of our yet unhappened past.

The future as leverage

The future is nothing but a series of present moments that have not arrived yet. The future technically will never come. It will just be another present moment.  Today is yesterday’s future and that is all we have access to.

Man first of all is the being who hurls himself towards a future and who is conscious of imagining himself as being in the future.

– Jean Paul Sartre [3]

Amongst all living creatures we are the only ones, as far as we know it, capable of thinking about the future and projecting ourselves into it.

Our ability to project ourselves forward in time and experience events before they happen enables us to learn from mistakes without making them and to evaluate actions without taking them. If nature has given us a greater gift, no one has named it.

– Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness [2]

As obvious as this is, we have not been taught to leverage this basic fact of the human OS.  Our common tendency when thinking about the future is worry and anxiety that primarily come from our need to control the future which by definition we cannot.

You must dispense with these two things: fear of the future, and the recollection of ancient ills. The latter no longer concerns me, the former has yet to concern me.

– Seneca in Letters to Lucilius [4]

Trying to set objectives and goals also tend to be positive manifestations of this need to control the future. But the future is uncertain, unknowable, and by definition uncontrollable.

Rewriting, not controlling the future

If we cannot control the future then why bother? Because while we cannot control the future, it is the ultimate context for the present and consequently has a big influence on the our actions and the choices we make in the present.

Additionally, there is a difference between trying to control the future and having influence and power over it. And we can do that through language.

Our future is built in language. It is through language that we access, describe, and build the future. Most of the time this is automatic and we do not give much thought to it. We have already built a version of the future by default. The question is whether we want to live into that particular version or not.

The future as creating the present

The typical notion is that our actions in the present moment create or at least influence the future. This is true. If our present actions are based on the past then the future will be more of the past or very similar to it. This is ok and there is nothing wrong with it.

But what if we do not want that default version of the future? [9]

Consider the opposite – that the future creates the present. The future creates the present by being the overarching context for the actions we take in the present. Context is what determines our way of being and our actions in a given situation. [8]

Different contexts drive different actions. A dramatically different and compelling future requires a dramatically different set of actions from us in the present than a bleak, same-old, same-old future.

The most important part and what gets missed though is that we can create this compelling future through language. Whatever future we have right now is but one version of it. We can change that particular version and the different version will drive different actions. In this way the future creates the present.

Human time is different from mechanical clock time
Captive Balloon with Clock Face, Camille Grávis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Past, present, and future in an interconnected loop

Thus, instead of the past, present, and future being  discrete and disconnected points on a linear timeline, they are more akin to being in a continuous infinity loop, where each one informs, influences, and evolves with the other, thereby setting up a vicious or a virtuous loop.

All three dimensions of time are equiprimordial, for one never occurs without the other. All three are open to us equiprimordially , but they are not open uniformally.

First, one dimension is predominant, then the other one in which we are engaged, or in which, perhaps, we are even imprisoned. In this way, each of the other two dimensions have not just disappeared at any given time but have merely been modified. The other dimensions are not subject to mere negation, but to privation.

– Martin Heidegger in Zollikon Seminars [5]

Latest research and thought in complexity science and its application to management confirms this view of time in the human domain.[6]

Human interaction in the present is thus simultaneously forming and being formed by the past and the future. […] In relation to human action, the arrow of time has an important temporal implication. It means that the present has a circular time structure in that the present both forms and is formed by the past and the future at the same time.

The arrow of time then means that the movement of human experience in the present has the circular self-referential time structure of reconstructed pasts and imagined futures.

Responsive processes thinking takes a circular, paradoxical view of time. This means that the past is not actually given, but is being reiterated, retold in the present in the light of the expectations people are forming in the present for the future.

Expectations for the future are affecting how the stories of the past are being retold and those stories are affecting expectations for the future, all in the present.

In a sense the future is changing the past just as the retelling of the past is changing the future, all in the present. The present is thus living in the sense that it has a time structure incorporating both the past and the future.

– Ralph Stacey & Chris Mowles in Strategic Management & Organisational Dynamics [6]

Some of us might argue the mechanics of how true this assertion is. But that misses the point. The real question is whether our interpretation and orientation gives us more capacity for action.

The question is not whether this is true or not. The question is which system of thinking is most useful? Which gives us power?

– Peter Block [7]

What conception of time are you using and which version of the future are you working towards?

Further Reading

Authenticity and our experience of time are more connected than we think. In Authentic Leadership and Time, I explore this connection.

Our relationship with our past and future can alter how we approach everything. In Pulled by the Future vs Pushed by the Past, I examine the difference between the two stances.

The future can be a powerful context for actions in the present. Leaders have to be masters of context.


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Footnotes/References

  1. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.
  2. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.
  3. Jean Paul Sartre cited in Working with Goals in Psychotherapy & Counseling by Mick Cooper & Duncan Law.
  4. Seneca as cited in A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry.
  5. Zollikon Seminars by Martin Heidegger.
  6. Strategic Management & Organizational Dynamics by Ralph Stacey & Chris Mowles.
  7. Changing the Nature of Conversation by Peter Block.
  8. The Phenomenology of Leadership by Wiley Souba.
  9. The Three Laws of Performance by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan.



Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership/ positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
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