Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.

Sam Walton

Over the next decade, today’s connected world will be explosively more connected. Anything that can be distributed will be distributed: workforces, organizations, supply webs, and more. The tired practices of centralized organizations will become brittle in a  future where authority is radically decentralized. Rigid hierarchies will give way to liquid structures. Most leaders – and most organizations – aren’t ready for this future.

Noted futurist Bob Johansen goes beyond skills and competencies to propose five new leadership literacies – combinations of disciplines, practices, and worldviews – that will be needed to thrive in a VUCA world of increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Enduring leadership qualities like strength, humility, and trust will still be foundational, but the future will require new literacies for leading. The future will reward clarity – but punish certainty. Looking long will help differentiate between the waves of change that can be ridden and those that must be avoided. Judging too soon will be dangerous, but deciding too late will be even worse.

These are the five literacies for current and future leaders:

  1. Learn to look backward from the future which is about learning how to go out to the future (usually ten years out) and then work your way back. It will help you see the direction of change so that you can avoid the noise of the present and develop your clarity. To lead, you will need to be clear about direction (clarity will be rewarded) but flexible about execution (certainty will be punished).
  2. Voluntarily engage in fear which is about gamefully engaging with your own fears in low-risk simulated worlds. Because next-generation disruption will be so dangerous and difficult to understand, safe zones will be needed where you can immerse yourself in fear and figure out how to succeed. Practice and learn with others, the way the military conducts war gaming. Then come back better prepared for the real thing.
  3. Leadership for shape-shifting organizations. Learn how to thrive in distributed organizations that have no center, grow from the edges, and cannot be controlled. Hierarchies will come and go as needs arise and the environment shifts. The next generation of technology will provide the connective cord for distributed organizations so you can share risk and develop new opportunities. Since reciprocity will be the currency of this new world—not just traditional transactions—you will have to practice mutual-benefit partnering. Authority will be increasingly distributed.
  4. Be there even when you’re not there. Although you may currently lead best in person, shape-shifting organizations will require you to be many places at once. Leaders will have to engage with people who are geographically, organizationally, and temporally distributed. In-person meetings will still be best for some things, but you will need to decide which medium is good for what, with which people, at what time.
  5. Create and sustain positive energy. You must regulate your personal energy so you have focus, stamina, and resilience when you need it. The VUCA world will be exhausting for everyone – but especially for leaders. You will have to be extremely fit, physically and psychologically – much more so than leaders in the past. And you will need spiritual (though not necessarily religious) grounding anda  sense of meaning in the midst of extreme disruption.

Many leaders today are overwhelmed by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA). Some of their leadership behaviors are not constructive, and the prospects for leadership in the future are far from secure. In these troubled times, many leaders are judging too soon and judging too simplistically.

Some leaders react to the VUCA World with anger and disdain. Some pick a side and start to fight. And some leaders truly believe that the chaos will go away as things somehow get back to what they remember as normal. Such leadership responses are understandable, but they are also dysfunctional and dangerous.

Leaders must learn new skills in order to make a better future. Traditional leadership practices will not be enough to deal with startling external future forces. Leaders must have new skills to take advantage of VUCA opportunities—as well as the agility to sidestep the dangers.

The purpose of ten-year futures thinking is to come up with a way forward, expressed with clarity and ideally as a story. The best way to lead in a disruptive world is to be very clear where you’re going, tell a  great story about it, and then be very flexible about how you bring that future to life.

Sergey Nivens – stock.adobe.com

These are ten new leadership skills for the future:

  1. Maker instinct – the ability to turn one’s natural instinct to build into a skill for making the future and connecting with others who are making the future. The maker instinct is basic to leadership in the future.
  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. Learning ability – the ability to immerse yourself in unfamiliar environments, to learn from them in a first-person way.
  5. Bio-empathy – the ability to see things from nature’s point of view; to understand, respect, and learn from nature’s patterns. Nature has its own clarity, if only we humans can understand and learn from it.
  6. Constructive depolarization – the ability to calm tense situations where differences dominate and communication has broken down and to bring people from.
  7. Quiet transparency – the ability to be open and transparent about what matters to you, without advertising yourself.
  8. Rapid prototyping – creating quick early versions of innovations, with the expectation that later success will require early failures.
  9. Smart-mobs organizing – the ability to bring together, engage with, and nurture purposeful business or social-change networks through intelligent use of electronic and other media.
  10. Commons creating – the ability to seed, nurture, and grow shared assets that can benefit all players – and allow competition at a higher level.

The future will be no ordinary world as today’s young people become adults and join the workforce – whether they have a traditional job or find a more fluid way to make a living. The world of the future will demand so much more than is expected of leaders today. So many current leaders are still using ordinary leadership practices in pursuit of ordinary goals. Most of today’s leaders were trained to solve problems, but they are flummoxed by dilemmas they cannot solve, dilemmas that won’t go away. Many leaders are not tuned to the multimedia world. Distributed media and shape-shifting organizations will disrupt every industry. The disruptive shift from technology to media will alter the nature of leadership. It will require new leadership disciplines, new leadership practices, and new leadership literacies. The key amplifier will be radical connectivity. What will be new will be the scale of disruption: leaders will have to deal with disruption on a  global scale – because of the super connectivity that we all experience. Global disruption will be loaded with dilemmas. It will be a frightening future, but it also will be a hopeful future. Leaders will need new insight about how to be resilient in the face of next-generation disruption and dilemmas. We need to make some sense out of disruptive dilemmas that often seem to make no sense at all.

Leaders will need voluntary fear exposure, not only to learn how to live with fear but also to learn how to flip that fear into opportunity. They will need safe zones (think games, simulations, or immersive experiences) to try out their future leadership skills in low-risk settings. They will need new ways to partner in guilds or communities, so theydon’t have to go it alone. They will need new media savvy to lead through the rich mix of media that is just coming to life. And finally, leaders will need to be physically, mentally, and spiritually fit in ways that were never required before.

We all have to find ways of making sense out of the VUCA world, but the VUCA world will be too complicated for many people. As leaders we have to recognize that people around us are likely to become trapped in simplistic thinking, particularly as practiced in politics and religion. Leaders will need to lead while not going over what I call the threshold of righteousness. It’s one thing to believe you’re right and have clarity about a  future direction. It’s quite another to believe everybody else is wrong. You, as leaders in a dilemma-ridden world, will have to figure out how to thrive in this space between judging too soon and deciding too late.


Read more: Johansen, Bob. The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a  Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017