One of the most commonly misunderstood ideas is “time.” In the brain, the past is stored in your memory circuits now, and the future (your hopes, dreams and aspirations) is stored in “prediction” and “possibility” circuits in the brain now. That is, the past, present and future are constantly interacting in the brain now. This understanding is key to the development of “future” leaders or “high potentials,” as they need to bring the future into the here and now.

How do you bring the future into the here and now?

The key mechanism is imagination. It’s not about perceiving what you want, but imagining what you want. It’s not about the probability of success. It’s about the possibility of success. For this reason, succession planning is intimately related to the science of imagination and the science of possibility.

No skyscraper was built before it was imagined or deemed possible. After this, the architect draws up the plans, still relying on imagination and possibility. And the builder then builds the skyscraper. Similarly, when organizations prepare their new leaders, they must engage in an analogous mindset.

The science of possibility

When the brain translates imagination into reality, it must first conceive of a goal. It must be motivated to conceive of that goal, and that motivation is called “possibility thinking.” When you think that something is possible, when you believe, this can increase dopamine and a feeling of reward. It can also increase opioids, thereby decreasing stress.

In order to enhance the possibility thinking of future leaders across the organization, the people in charge of learning must first ensure that those future leaders have the relevant mindset. This means that learning must include such subjects as managing burnout, what to do when feeling lost, how not to be stuck in habit, what to do if you are depressed, and how to train attention and imagination. Without these factors, you cannot engage in possibility thinking. I use a possibility index to measure and address these factors.

The fallacy behind goals

When teaching future leaders how to “train” imagination, training must include a deep understanding of the fallacy behind goals. A goal cannot exist in the future if you are to reach it. For example, any person who becomes an Olympic champion starts to imagine, believe in and train toward that goal now.

The science of imagination

Athletes know all about the power of imagination. They are living proof that imagination can translate into action. But imagination is not just some abstract wishful thinking. There are two kinds of imagination that improve confidence, for example. “Coming from behind” and practicing a specific weakness will help leaders’ brains build confidence.

The science of becoming

Another subtle distinction is the difference between “desire” and “becoming.” Desiring to become a future leader always separates you from that goal. Becoming a future leader means that you already are that leader and you focus on removing what is in the way.

Old memories and self-limiting beliefs need to be confronted. Even if you are in finance, engineering, or programming, these concrete functions require more abstract development to truly lead at a higher level.

“Leading” is not just a technical function. It requires soft skills such as empathy, curiosity, humor, and imagination. All of these competencies must be part of the learning agenda, too. And don’t forget that at the root of all of these competencies is brain health. Understanding how to manage your energy is also key.

Understanding the science behind manifesting our greatest potential is key to the development of future leaders. Possibility thinking, the true nature of goal achievement, imagination and becoming are all often unconscious competencies that must be taught if we are to develop future leaders.