Last April, 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 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 new 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:

  1. Maker instinct. Ability to exploit your inner drive to build and grow things, as well as connect with others in the making.
  2. Clarity. Ability to see through messes and contradictions to a future that others cannot yet see.
  3. Dilemma flipping. Ability to turn dilemmas — which, unlike problems, cannot be solved — into advantages and opportunities.
  4. Immersive learning ability. Ability to immerse yourself in unfamiliar environments and to learn from them in a first-person way.
  5. Bio-empathy. Ability to see things from nature’s point of view — to understand, respect and learn from nature’s patterns.
  6. Constructive depolarizing. Ability to calm tense situations where differences dominate and communication has broken down — and bring people from divergent cultures toward constructive engagement.
  7. Quiet transparency. Ability to be open and authentic about what matters to you — without advertising yourself.
  8. Rapid prototyping. Ability to create quick early versions of innovations, with the expectation that later success will require early failures.
  9. Smart mob organizing. Ability to create, engage with and nurture purposeful business or social change networks through intelligent use of electronic or other media.
  10. Commons creating. Ability to seed, nurture and grow shared assets that can benefit other players &msdash; and sometimes allow competition at a higher level.

“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.”

Turn It Around

Leaders in the future will need to have Vision, Understanding, Clarity and Agility. Consider how negative VUCA can be turned around to positive VUCA with effective leadership, suggests Bob Johansen:

  • Volatility leads to Vision.
  • Uncertainty yields to Understanding.
  • Complexity yields to Clarity.
  • Ambiguity yields to Agility.

Take the Leader of the Future Quiz. Are you ready to lead in a future that will be volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous? Take this self-assessment to rate your own readiness for the future, based on Bob Johansen’s book Leaders Make the Future.

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