One April a few years ago, noted futurist and author Bob Johansen was giving a keynote presentation on leading in a VUCA world when a volcano erupted in Iceland.
As if nature were listening and decided to help Johansen make his point, the volcano Eyjafjallajökull spewed ash across Europe, halting flights and grounding about 10 million travelers worldwide. Commerce stalled, and routine business operations suddenly seemed vulnerable and volatile.
Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity — VUCA — are the realities of today and will continue to be so in the future, Johansen says. “It won’t be getting easier and leaders must accept this reality.”
But even the expert Johansen found the disruption hard to take. “The weather in London was clear — it looked fine. But I was stuck in London for a week; all my plans changed,” he recalls. “It is much more difficult to experience VUCA than talk about it! I thought: I can’t believe what a wimp I am about this! The point is that we have to experience these things — over and over — to learn and grow as leaders in a changing and uncertain world.”
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.”
To make a better future, leaders must seek out experiences and opportunities to learn and apply 10 new skills:
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 New Leadership Skills Needed in the Future
To survive, lead, and create the future, Johansen argues that leaders must build and apply 10 new skills:
- Maker instinct. 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. Ability to see through messes and contradictions to a future that others cannot yet see. How can you communicate with clarity in confusing times, so you are simple without being simplistic?
- Dilemma flipping. Ability to turn dilemmas into advantages and opportunities. How can you improve your skills at dilemma flipping so that you succeed with challenges that cannot be solved and won’t go away?
- Immersive learning ability. 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. 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. Ability to bring people from divergent cultures toward constructive engagement. How can you calm and improve tense situations where people cannot agree?
- Quiet transparency. 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. 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. 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. 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 cannot predict, but they can prepare.
- Urgent Patience. Leaders need to discern when people are overloaded, when they are overly confident — then adjust the pressure and urgency accordingly.
- Story-telling and Listening. Leadership will continue to be about discovering and tell 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 Will Leaders Need in the Future? Turn VUCA Around
Leaders in the future will need to have Vision, Understanding, Clarity and Agility. Consider how the negative concepts of the VUCA acronym can be turned around to a more positive framing of effective leadership, suggests Bob Johansen:
- Volatility leads to Vision.
- Uncertainty yields to Understanding.
- Complexity yields to Clarity.
- Ambiguity yields to Agility.
Get Yourself Ready for the Future
VUCA or RUPT, whatever the acronym used, you may be wondering, what can I do to develop my future leadership skills? 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? Johansen includes questions for reflection as well as a simple self-assessment (co-created with CCL’s Sylvester Taylor) in the book.
- Immerse yourself in the future. Preparing for the future requires immersive learning experiences. This gives 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 have 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 will gain great insight and develop new skills by immersing yourself in the future. Wisdom comes from where you have been in the past. But you must return to the present. Take what you have learned, says Johansen, and apply it today to make a better future.
The future holds both danger and opportunity, writes Johansen. The question is, Are you listening for the signals and learning the skills that will help you?
Want more insights like this? Explore our Future Fluency series, or check out Johansen’s book, Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World.