Thinking about the Future: Lessons from Yesterday for a Better Tomorrow

Thinking about the Future: Lessons from Yesterday for a Better Tomorrow by Dr. Patrick Malone, Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs

Have you ever noticed how difficult it can be to think about the future? I’m not talking about what our schedule looks like tomorrow or what we may have planned for next month. I’m talking about the future. The real future. As in, way down the road.

Far too often we find ourselves wrapped up in the day-to-day challenges that keep us from thinking ahead. There are reports to write, meetings to attend, and presentations to prepare. Ever since COVID-19 arrived on our shores, it seems that we are busier than ever.

Those who study such things have several interesting predictions for our future. It is expected that the size of the global market will double. The economies of the United States, Germany, and Japan will likely drop below their current rankings on the world stage. Meanwhile, India, Indonesia, and Brazil are anticipated to make tremendous gains.  And, many foresee a growth in the world population by approximately 26%. Advances in healthcare should serve us well. Automobiles will be driverless.

January is the traditional time of year when we make our New Year’s resolutions. As the previous 12 months concludes and the new year dawns, it’s a time when we naturally start thinking about what’s to come. Interestingly, this practice of making a New Year’s resolution dates back to the Roman God Janus in 153 B.C.

Janus was the God of transitions and passages. He had two faces that allowed him to simultaneously look forward to the future and back to the past. The Romans used this belief every year on December 31 to reflect on the previous year and look forward to the new times ahead. They believed that Janus would forgive them for mistakes they made and would bless them as the new year got underway.

The year 2020 has taught us a lot of things. Life is short. Too short. There is so much out there that we have taken for granted for so many years. Safety, health, friendly crowds, live music, peaceful protest, and respectful discourse. Life and work look different now. Specifically, we now see our world over the rim of a face mask. We don’t hug anymore. Nonverbal communication through video is difficult to navigate, creating a gaping chasm in our ability to physically and emotionally connect. Whether it was due to a pandemic, global uncertainties, social reckonings, and challenges in leadership, we feel the impact.

As we welcome the new year and say farewell to 2020, I want to take a moment to speak directly to those who took an oath to serve in government. To the public servants at all levels of government, who valiantly face the impact of the pandemic and a supercharged social, political, and economic landscape, we in the Key family extend our deepest gratitude. It has been a difficult year. Yet once again, regardless of the barriers, our public servants continue to care for our nation, ensuring safety, continuity, and consistency, even in the most difficult times. Your job is among the toughest there is and it takes fierce resolve and a resilient person to devote their career to delivering civilization to our country. So from under our mask, we say thank you!

In looking back over the previous 12 months, we have a lot to learn from. It is almost as if someone pressed the reset button on our lives. Even so, we have a chance to come together and make this year better, maybe even extraordinary!

So let’s do it.

Perhaps in the next 12 months we can commit ourselves to being more loving and more caring. Maybe we can be a little slower to judgment and a little quicker to forgive. In the Key program, we often talk about assuming noble intent. Not a bad idea! Kindness works. Laughter. Love. So does gratitude. We might consider spending a bit more time focusing on how we live our lives and how we can make the lives of those around us better than ever. In our jobs, in our homes, in our communities, it doesn’t matter where we are, it’s what we choose to do. And we can do this.

Last week during an especially intense yoga session, my yoga instructor made the following comment. She said, “sometimes I think we spend too much time being human doings instead of being human beings.” I immediately fell out of my Shirshasana practice!

What a lovely thought. Let’s spend the coming year as a human being.


About the Author

Dr. Patrick Malone

Professor Malone is an Executive-in-Residence in the Department of Public Administration and Policy where he teaches courses in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, action learning, leadership ethics, and public administration and policy. He also serves as the Director of American University’s Key Executive Leadership Programs. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics in state and federal agencies, professional associations, and universities. He has extensive experience working with federal sector leaders from DHHS, EPA, IRS, USDA, HUD, DHS, and DoD among others. Professor Malone also regularly presents in international forums to government leaders from the Republic of Vietnam, Panama, Poland, Belgium, and Mauritius. His research interests and scholarship include work in public service motivation, leadership, ethics, and organizational behavior. He is one of only thirty researchers in the country certified to score the Subject/Object qualitative research methodology developed at Harvard University.

Dr Malone spent twenty-two years in the Department of Defense where he served in a number of senior leadership and policy roles including as a professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; Academic Director; and Dean of Academics for Navy Medicine. His most recent publications include “Thinking Up,” “Selfies in the Workplace: Narcissists and the Public Manager,” “Making Assumptions? Try the Power of Inquiry,” “The Challenges That Set Public Service Apart” and “Enhancing Your Leadership by Tapping into Staff Attitudes.” His TED Talk, “Thinking about Time,” is available at and his co-edited book, The Handbook of Federal Leadership and Administration, was published in November 2016. He is also the host of the monthly podcast “Take It From Key.”

About the Key Programs

Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.  

SPA Key Executive Leadership Programs

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