Making Sense of Time: Memory, Attention, Expectation

The ancient Greeks had many concepts of time but believed that two were particularly important. The first was sequential, or chronological, time, the relentless beat of time measured today by watches and calendars. In Greek mythology the personification of time was known as Chronos, familiar to us as Father Time. The abstract, labeled time of past and future—chronos—is captured in our words “chronicle” and “chronometer.” One can also think of it as managerial time, more prosaically as the time of “one damn thing after another,” the linear time of reports and budgets, of histories and forecasts.

The second kind of time for the Greeks was kairos, recalling the youngest of Zeus’s immortal sons. This is the time of seasons, of goals and intentions, of activity and opportunity, which the Romans called occasio. It is the time of now; the infinitely fine-grained, perpetual, thin moment of now in which we all live. The time is always now. Youngest sons always seem to be less encumbered than their older siblings, and, when personified, Kairos is depicted as a young man with wings on his feet and his back that allow him to follow a jinking, butterfly course, crisscrossing Chronos’s linear track. He carries a set of scales in one hand and a knife in the other, ready to cut the thread of time. His head is bald except for a long hank of hair on his forehead. The idea was that if you saw Kairos—opportunity—fluttering toward you, you could seize him by the forelock, but if he got past you, it would be impossible to grab his smooth head from behind.

One can think of kairos as the time of leaders. Effective leaders, in deed and in word, are always pointing out the significance of the moment, the present time, and the opportunities it represents. If the logic of management is all about the maintenance of focus (vertical thinking), then leadership is about the restoration of peripheral vision (horizontal thinking, the ability to make creative connections across fields).

Few have expressed the task better than Mary Parker Follett:

“In business we are always passing from one significant moment to another significant moment, and the leader’s task is pre-eminently to understand the moment of passing . . . it mean[s] far more than meeting the next situation . . . it mean[s] making the next situation.” (Dynamic Administration, emphasis in the original)

Managers meet situations; leaders make them. Managers synchronize watches; leaders synchronize intentions.

Ellen Langer suggests that the ability to situate oneself in the present is the essence of mindfulness, the ability to shake oneself free from the categories of thought derived from the past and to draw novel distinctions. “When we are mindless,” Langer writes, “our behavior is rule and routine governed; when we are mindful, rules and routines may guide our behavior rather than predetermine it.”  Being in the present is essential to this. She quotes Saint Augustine, who might be describing the intersection of the two kinds of time: “The present, therefore, has several dimensions . . . the present of things past, the present of things present, and the present of things future.” (Mindfulness)

Today we call them memory, attention, and expectation, but we rarely think of them as aspects of the present.”

The Role of History

From the study of history, managers should feel as if they and their organizations are travelers flowing in a great stream of time, propelled by the past but with many possibilities ahead. Just as is the case when running a real river, one does not succeed by trying to fight the dynamics of the current. One makes progress by using the natural forces in the stream to take one where one wants to go.

The use of history to understand the dynamics of the turbulent stream in this way is well captured in this quote from political scientist Richard Neustadt and historian Ernest May:

“Thinking of time [as a stream] . . . appears . . . to have three components. One is the recognition that the future has no place to come from except from the past, hence the past has predictive value. Another element is recognition that what matters for the future in the present is departures from the past, alterations, changes, which prospectively or actually divert familiar flows from accustomed channels, thus affecting the predictive value and much else besides. A third component is continuous comparison, an almost constant oscillation from present to future to past and back, heedful of prospective changes, concerned to expedite, limit, guide, counter, or accept it as the fruits of such comparison suggest.” (Thinking in Time)

History has predictive value not because the future will be like the past but because some things will continue, habits will endure, and humans will tend to behave in the future much as they have behaved in the past, given similar contexts. Thus, the best use of history is to help sensitize managers to detecting contexts—patterns and changes in patterns—and to hone their contextual intelligence, the practical wisdom and judgment that helps them to anticipate and to adapt. Another name for it is sensemaking.

We cannot predict the future, but we can interpret the past to help us understand the present and anticipate the future. It is the constant oscillation, the constant Janus-like comparison between present and past, present and future that allows effective leaders to continually point out the significance of the moment. It is the moment when chronos and kairos, inevitability and opportunity, come together.

This blog is excerpted from my book, The New Ecology of Leadership: Business Mastery in a Chaotic World, Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 2012. The discussion of Chronos and Kairos is based on Elliott Jaques, The Form of Time.

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