I came across this expression recently when I attended the Intertrade Ireland conference in Belfast. One of the speakers mentioned it. ‘Cathedral Thinking’ refers to the idea that you build for future generations. So, when designing a great cathedral in olden days, architects knew that they would never see the building finished in their lifetimes, but it didn’t matter. They were designing for posterity.
Similarly, the people who funded the build – the princes of the church or royalty – also knew that they were commissioning and starting something that neither they nor, possibly, their children would see finished. Look at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It took over 200 years to build. Started in 1163, it was finally completed in 1345. Now, in the 2020’s it stands as a monument to great medieval gothic architecture, and to the vision of Bishop Maurice de Sully, although he doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves.
So what responsibility do corporates and politicians have when it comes to cathedral thinking?
Cathedral Thinking in Corporate and Politics
Corporate bodies are much better at it. A key purpose of a company is to make money and stay in business (it cannot do anything else if it fails in these two tasks) so corporate entities are very good at keeping an eye on the future and making sure that they will remain financially viable. Lately, this has involved looking beyond the products that they produce and typically thinking of the future of the planet and whether or not they are helping to preserve the earth’s ecosystem so that the business – and the world – have a long future ahead. Good cathedral thinking.
Politicians are not good at it. A key purpose of any politician is to represent the people who elected him/her and make sure that they get re-elected. Since elections happen in very frequent cycles, it is difficult for any politician to subscribe to and support cathedral thinking which will affect future generations of their current electorate. Even at government level, the government too needs to be re-elected and cycles are short here also. It takes a truly visionary party to create a manifesto which contains cathedral thinking , and it takes a truly visionary party to inherit the cathedral thinking of another and continue to build. It is a shift in thinking – but that is what the world needs.
Cathedral Thinking is about rising above the day-to-day and investing in a future that you might not live to see. Cathedral Thinking is about knowing that the decisions you are taking are correct and will be favourably viewed by future generations. Little did Bishop de Sully know that over 1000 years after he began to build Notre Dame, people would still be applauding his visionary approach to worship.