Leading Today and Tomorrow: Ten New Skills for an Uncertain World
by Bob Johansen
I study the future to learn about leadership in the present. One of my jobs as a forecaster is to help leaders—including leaders of publishing companies—learn to lead aggressively even if they feel uneasy. Given the fact that discomfort will come with the territory for the next 10 years and probably far beyond, I’m convinced that leaders must learn new skills to make a better future.
Specifically, I’m convinced that 10 new leadership qualities are vital:
Maker instinct involves exploiting your inner drive to build and grow things, as well as to connect with others in the making.
Clarity involves seeing through messes and contradictions to a future that others cannot yet see. Leaders should be very clear about what they are making, but very flexible about how it gets made.
Dilemma flipping involves turning dilemmas—which, unlike problems, cannot be solved—into advantages and opportunities.
Immersive learning ability involves immersing yourself in unfamiliar environments to learn directly from them.
Bioempathy involves seeing things from nature’s point of view in order to understand, respect, and learn from nature’s patterns.
Constructive depolarizing involves calming tense situations in which differences dominate and communication has broken down—and bringing people from divergent cultures toward constructive engagement.
Quiet transparency involves being open and authentic about what matters to you—without aggrandizing yourself.
Rapid prototyping involves creating quick early versions of innovations with the expectation that later success will require early failures.
Smart-mob organizing involves creating, engaging with, and nurturing purposeful business or social-change networks through intelligent use of electronic and other media.
Commons creating involves stimulating, growing, and nurturing shared assets that can benefit other players—and sometimes allow competition at a higher level.
Rate Your Own Leadership Skills for the Future
What follows can help you figure out how you rate on these 10 future leadership skills. When you have come up with responses to the questions and suggestions under the heading for each skill, assign yourself a rating for that skill using this set of values:
Do you have a maker instinct? When you were a child, how did you play in sand at the beach? What kinds of things did you make? What did you enjoy the most? How has this experience contributed to your leadership style as you have matured?
How would you describe your interests as an adult in how things work, beyond just what gets produced? How does this interest translate into your own leadership style and skills?
How do you express your own do-it-yourself urges to cook, sew, knit, work with wood, design, write, or do other tasks where you are either making or remaking? How do these instincts contribute to your role as a leader? Are there ways you could bring these skills to work more often?
What do you learn from reading Make: Magazine, Technology Review, or some other maker publications? Do you participate in online discussions about making? What have you learned in exchanges involving people who make things? How is your exposure to other makers contributing to your own leadership?
Do you communicate with clarity? Think back to a recent meeting in which you had trouble getting your point across. What were the characteristics of that situation? How did you respond as you tried to be clear? Would the people you lead describe your leadership as clear?
How often have you been complimented about your clarity in expression in any medium? Think of some specific examples. How do you express clarity in purpose through your leadership? Is your intent clear to those you lead?
How would you express your own personal leadership legacy in a single compelling sentence? What leadership skills will be most important for your legacy to be successful?
How would you express your organization’s strategic intent or winning proposition in a single compelling sentence? How do your leadership skills contribute to that winning proposition?
Can you flip dilemmas? Think about a specific dilemma you faced recently. When you could not solve it, how did that make you feel? How did you respond? How did you explore ways to flip the dilemma around so that it could become an opportunity?
Do you get energized when you are in the midst of doing a puzzle, before you solve it, or even if you cannot solve it? How do you apply that energy to explore ways to flip dilemmas into opportunities as part of your leadership?
Are you willing to decide and move ahead when a decision needs to be made, even when you don’t have a solution? Think of a decision you’ve had to make where there was no apparent solution.
Think of a case when you were able to flip a dilemma into something positive. What leadership skills did you demonstrate in doing this? Where might you be able to improve?
Do you have an immersive learning ability? Do you seek out new experiences you could learn from—especially situations that make you feel uncomfortable? Think of a recent example and of how that experience has contributed to your leadership.
Have you recently immersed yourself in a different world in order to learn? What did you learn? How did that learning get expressed in your leadership?
In what ways are you interested in the experience of and lessons of new video games? Do you seek to understand how serious and casual gamers are playing?
How have you participated in management games or simulations in your organization? Would you be willing to do so if someone else suggested it? Do you encourage the use of gaming and simulation as a learning medium?
Do you have bioempathy? As you were growing up, did you live in or frequently visit outdoor spaces like forests, oceans, farms, ponds, or parks? How did you play outside in nature? How does this experience contribute to your leadership today?
Do you have an emotional need to be in natural settings frequently and learn from the experiences you have in nature? How do you satisfy that need? How does this emotional connection to nature contribute to your leadership?
When you were in school, were you attracted to biology, life sciences, zoology, geography, anthropology, or other similar courses? Do you think of yourself in any sense as a life scientist, biologist, geographer, or natural scientist?
How do you look to nature for insight about challenges you have in your life? How do these life lessons get translated into your leadership style and skill set?
Can you constructively depolarize a situation? In what ways are you able to look at the world through the eyes of others, including those who make you feel uncomfortable? How do you express your curiosity about other cultural practices that are different from your own? Can you give some recent examples?
How do you listen to and learn from people who come from unfamiliar cultures where you have little experience? Are you judgmental about cultural habits and practices that do not conform to your own values?
Have you traveled internationally as a way of learning about people who think differently than you? When you do travel, do you seek out opportunities to learn how people in other cultures live? Do you speak multiple languages? If so, what have you learned about constructive depolarization by thinking across languages?
Think of an example where you have calmed a polarized situation and constructively engaged people toward some new path forward. How did you respond? What worked? What did not work?
Do you have quiet transparency? How do you share your reasons for doing things with others, especially with those you are leading? Would the people you lead characterize you as quietly transparent?
How do you express trust toward others—particularly people you are leading? Do the people you lead feel that you trust them? How do you embody this trust in your leadership style?
Do you have a strong need for others to recognize your accomplishments? Would the people you lead say that you have a strong need for personal recognition? Can you think of a recent experience where you demonstrated quiet transparency in your leadership, showing both strength and humility?
Has anyone ever referred to you as humble? What do those situations where you have shown humility say about your own leadership?
Can you do rapid prototyping? Are you eager to try things out as soon as possible to learn what works and what does not? Give a recent example of when you have done this as part of your role as leader.
Early on in a new task, do you get frustrated or impatient if things don’t work right away? If so, how do you work through that frustration?
Think of an example where you kept trying different approaches to a new idea in a rapid prototyping process. What did this experience reveal about your own leadership style? What additional skills could help you do this better?
What example shows how you were able to learn from your own failures? How does your approach to “failure” fit in with your own leadership style? Do you encourage people you lead to learn from their own failures?
Can you do smart-mob organizing? Do you find it satisfying to bring groups of people together? What are recent examples of your doing this? What aspects of this process do you find most satisfying?
Do you like to reach out and network with others, both in person and through online media?
Do you have a personal rule of thumb about which medium is best for a given situation?
Are you able to use online social media in your role as leader? Have you practiced your leadership skills through a range of different media? How does your use of online media leadership compare to your in-person leadership?
Can you do commons creating? Do you seek out and try to create situations where multiple parties benefit (as opposed to situations in which you alone win)? Can you give recent examples, whether or not your efforts were successful?
Have you ever given anything away to get more in return? Think back and describe how this process worked. Was it a win/win situation in the end?
Have you read about historical efforts to create commons that both reward individuals and larger groups? What lessons do you take away from these historical experiences? What is different about the new commons?
Do you like to read fantasy fiction or scenarios about how things could be or might be in the future? What writing do you find most relevant to your own leadership?
What the Total Tells You
The range of total scores runs from minus 20 to plus 20. As you interpret your own self-ratings, consider the following:
A total of plus 20 would mean that you have a perfect set of leadership skills to match external future forces over the next decade as I forecast them. Would others (especially people you lead) agree with your self-rating?
A total of minus 20, on the other hand, would mean you are a perfect misfit for the future that I see. You have a lot to learn to get ready to lead. Or perhaps you are forecasting a different future? Or perhaps you are being overly humble or too hard on yourself?
Bob Johansen has worked as a forecaster for more than 30 years and was president of the Institute for the Future from 1996 to 2004. Still on IFTF’s board, he is the author or co-author of eight books. This article is derived from his new one, Leaders Make the Future (Berrett-Koehler Publishers; bkconnection.com), which includes detailed descriptions of the 10 skills summarized here. Resource materials that complement the book and support the use of the skills are available at leadersmakethefuture.org.