Leadership Skills in an Uncertain World
What Leadership Skills Will Be Needed in the Future?
The current coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath have abruptly reminded us how “VUCA” the future is, and will inevitably continue to be.
Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity — VUCA — are the realities of today, and as noted futurist and author Bob Johansen says, “It won’t be getting easier. Leaders must accept this reality.”
In his book, Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World, Johansen says that leaders increasingly will face challenges that have no solutions. Of course, they will have to make decisions anyway.
The VUCA world will also have both danger and opportunity, he explains. “Leaders will be buffeted, but they need not allow themselves to be overwhelmed, depressed, or immobilized. Leaders must do more than just respond to the whirl of events, though respond they must. They must be positive change agents in the midst of chaos, creating the future. Some things can get better, even as other things get worse.”
Uncertainty and complexity aren’t going away — and confusion will remain part of the mix. The next 10 years will be exceptionally volatile, with many make-or-break decisions to be made.
10 Future Leadership Skills You Need
To survive, lead, and create the future, Johansen argues that leaders must build and apply these 10 future leadership skills:
- Maker instinct: The ability to exploit your inner drive to build and grow things, as well as connect with others in the making. How can you draw out your inner maker instinct and apply it to your leadership? Future leaders — working with others — will need both a can-do and a can-make spirit.
- Clarity: The ability to see through messes and contradictions to a future that others can’t yet see. How can you communicate with clarity in confusing times, so you’re simple without being simplistic?
- Dilemma flipping: The ability to turn dilemmas into advantages and opportunities. How can you improve your skills at dilemma flipping so that you succeed with challenges that can’t be solved and won’t go away?
- Immersive learning ability: The ability to immerse yourself in unfamiliar environments and to learn from them in a first-person way. Do you have what it takes to learn by immersing yourself in new physical and virtual worlds that will take you out of your comfort zone?
- Bio-empathy: The ability to see things from nature’s point of view — to understand, respect, and learn from nature’s patterns. Can you learn from nature and use that wisdom to inform your leadership?
- Constructive depolarizing: The ability to bring people from divergent cultures toward constructive engagement. How can you calm and improve tense situations where people cannot agree?
- Quiet transparency: The ability to be open and authentic about what matters without being overly self-promoting. How do you lead so that you inspire credibility and trust?
- Rapid prototyping: The ability to create quick, early versions of innovations, with the expectation that later success will require early failures. How can you do rapid prototyping that allows you to fail early, fail often, and fail cheaply — while learning along the way?
- Smart mob organizing: The ability to create, engage with, and nurture purposeful business or social change networks through intelligent use of electronic or other media. How can you organize smart mobs using a range of media, choosing the best medium for each communication challenge?
- Commons creating: The ability to seed, nurture, and grow shared assets that can benefit other players. How can you create settings within which both cooperation and competition may occur?
Moving beyond a new list of skills, what kind of leadership development or training can prepare us for the future? Leaders need to shore up the skills that are enduring (see below), but “immersion” is the key to learning the 10 new skills.
What’s staying the same? These things endure with leadership:
- Get There Early: Leaders need to build the skill and organizational capacity to know when to move.
- Physical and Mental Discipline: Leaders must develop physical and emotional energies that work for them — and inspire others.
- Active Attention: Leaders need to filter out noise and distraction, stay centered, and learn to see patterns.
- Readiness Discipline: Leaders can’t predict, but they can prepare.
- Urgent Patience: Leaders need to discern when people are overloaded or when they’re overly confident — then adjust the pressure and urgency accordingly.
- Story-telling and Listening: Leadership will continue to be about discovering and telling engaging stories to make sense of a situation and imagine a future.
- Humble Strength: Leaders are needed who will act with courage and clear intent, in an authentic, engaging, and self-effacing way.
- Synchronicity: Leaders need to find meaning in coincidence, and make connections between today’s experience and future possibilities.
“Leaders must immerse themselves in the future and practice their skills in a low-risk environment,” Johansen explains. Participating in games, delving into small-scale situations that mimic larger trends and challenges, and practicing new behaviors are all ways immersion helps us prepare for the future.
“The VUCA world of the future will be formidable and loaded with opportunities,” says Johansen. “The biggest danger is not being prepared — and you can control that by preparing yourself as a leader and readying your organization for an uncertain future.”
What Skills Will Leaders Need in the Future? Turn VUCA Around
In difficult times like today, it’s tricky to think about how you can move from addressing the needs of the now while preparing for what comes next, but you can be sure of one thing: Leaders in the future will need to have Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility.
Johansen notes that the VUCA acronym can be turned around to a more positive framing of effective leadership:
- Volatility leads to Vision.
- Uncertainty yields to Understanding.
- Complexity yields to Clarity.
- Ambiguity yields to Agility.
Leaders who bring this kind of VUCA have the future leadership skills needed to succeed in a VUCA world. (If your organization is seeking a way to help leaders navigate the future while not using the VUCA acronym, learn more about RUPT™, our alternative to VUCA.)
How to Sharpen Your Future Leadership Skills
You may be wondering what specifically you can do to develop your leadership skills for the future and the uncertain world we live in. Are you ready to lead through a crisis, and if not, how can you be?
Here’s a short version of Johansen’s recommendations:
- Rate your readiness. How ready are you to lead in the future? What do you need to better understand, learn, and practice? Honestly assess your future leadership skills and abilities. Johansen includes some questions for reflection on this in his book, or you can take a look at our quick crisis leadership self-assessment to determine how strong you are in the 15 leadership qualities that enable you to lead effectively in a crisis — and beyond.
- Immerse yourself in the future. Preparing for the future requires immersive learning experiences that give you the chance to operate in situations that don’t fully make sense, and in which old models, behaviors, or skills aren’t enough to succeed. You’ll want to seek out experiences that place you in unfamiliar, often uncomfortable, situations — and that push you to learn something that you’e identified as necessary to face the future. Use a learner’s mindset to get the most out of these experiences.
- Reflect back on your own leadership journey. Even as you look forward, Johansen advocates looking back at your life. What experiences and choices have influenced your leadership ability and style? What from your background could you revisit or bring forward to address the future? Perhaps you tried something that failed but might work now. Or a long-forgotten past experience or connection may offer insight into future directions for you or your organization.
- Return to the present. You’ll gain great insight and develop new skills by immersing yourself in the future. Wisdom comes from where you’ve been in the past. But you must return to the present. Take what you’ve learned, says Johansen, and apply it today to make a better future.
Again, if the future holds both danger and opportunity, the question really is, Are you listening for the signals and learning the future leadership skills you’ll need?
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