As I work with clients across the country and globe, I’ve gotten increasingly curious about what leaders will need to do to be successful in the future. After all, our world has changed more in the past 20 years than it has in the previous 200, and what worked yesterday will likely not work tomorrow.
What skills and capacities will leaders need to navigate the complexity of our evolving workplace? The intent of this series of posts, resources and masterclasses is to step into that inquiry and spark a conversation about what the future of leadership means.
Do you have the leadership bench in place that can effectively scale your organization? Are your leaders confident and ready to take the helm in the midst of rapid reinvention?
There’s a lot changing in our work and society.
We’ve seen technologies completely disrupt industries and challenge existing business models.
We are in the midst of a cultural movement in the workplace as women find a stronger voice to take a long-awaited stand for not only equal pay but equal access to a seat at the table.
Our multigenerational workforce emphasizes different values and preferences.
The global nature of our environment is such that a small business on one side of the globe can create competition on the other.
In some ways, the complexity of the workplace is mind boggling.
There are so many factors that will impact the ability to be effective as a leader of the future. And, in the words of Marshall Goldsmith, what got us here may not get us there.
What Should Leaders Change First?
While I do believe that there are some leadership traits and behaviors that will stand the test of time, like leading by example, I’m curious about how the massive change in our workplace and society will impact what leaders need to do to achieve success in the future.
Take a moment to consider some of the greatest innovators in history including Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and even Jeff Bezos. If Henry Ford asked customers in the early 1900s what they wanted, they may have asked for faster horses. If Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs followed in others’ shoes before them, they would have improved corporate mainframe systems instead of introducing a computer that individuals could afford. And if Jeff Bezos pandered to Wall Street quarterly earnings demands instead of long-term risk taking, he would still be dropping off books at the post office in his personal vehicle.
What stands out to me most, is that in order to succeed in this rapidly changing world, the shift may be less about skill set and more about mind-set.
Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
To change our mind-set, or thinking, leaders will need the humility to consider how they take in information and the assumptions, biases and beliefs they manufacture as a result. They’ll need the vulnerability to admit where they might be wrong when new information proves their assumptions incorrect or incomplete. And, they’ll need the courage to change and communicate their new points of view.
Two Shifts in Thinking Needed to Survive
Not everyone will survive. There will be some people and leaders who are geared and gifted to survive in this volatile and ambiguous work environment. Others will be blind to the need to change before they have to.
To start, there are two shifts in thinking leaders will need to make.
FROM SAFETY TO PURPOSE
The first shift stems from an orientation of safety and comfort to one of purpose and vision.
In their book Mastering Leadership, Robert J. Anderson and William A. Davis describe a tension in life that all people face. It’s a tension between purpose and safety, between the part of us that wants to do and be something great and meaningful and the part of us that seeks certainty, comfort and safety.
They describe the tension not as bad, but instead as a healthy part of life, where the motivations of playing to win and playing not to lose reside together.
The challenge is that people can’t effectively lead others through change from a place of certainty and safety. And, after all, leadership is about change—taking people from point A to point B.
Those who are not able to see the natural tension between purpose and safety, and change their mind-sets to recognize when they are retreating to their comfort zone, will lack the capacity to lead in the future. They will be limited in the face of complexity and chaos.
FROM RIGIDITY TO AGILITY
The second shift in thinking is around a leader’s ability to make decisions in the face of new information and adapt their points of view often. Leaders who are not able to make decisions quickly and then pivot based on new information will get stuck as they dig in their heels based on a narrative that is outdated and narrow. We often see this with leaders who have initial success—either in their careers or companies they’ve built—and they misattribute results to incorrect causes. Or their arrogance gets in the way of considering new ideas. Or their desire to please others causes them to avoid disrupting a relationship. Sometimes leaders are simply successful in spite of what they do and not because of what they do. This second shift in thinking is really about the ability to challenge your own assumptions and beliefs, admitting where they might need to change and then to change them quickly.
According to a Forbes article, when Jeff Bezos evaluates how intelligent people are, he looks less to how many times people have been right. Instead, he looks for people who can admit they are wrong and change their opinions often. This is counterintuitive and in many arenas, including politics or leadership at the top, people might be labeled as flip-floppers. Bezos’ perspective is that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they already solved as new information comes to light.
Changing Your Perspective
So how can you start changing your thinking and consciousness to keep pace with the rate of change?
For most of us, it will be a lifelong journey.
But it starts with asking new questions that challenge us to move from a place of safety to one of purpose. And it continues with asking questions that challenge our assumptions and beliefs and open us to new points of view.
Consider the following questions as starting points:
- What do you currently believe (about the issue at hand) and how might you be wrong?
- What would you do in this situation (personally or professionally), if you couldn’t fail?
- How are you playing not to lose instead of playing to win?
- If you were approaching this situation from a 10x perspective instead of just incremental process improvement, what would you do more of, less of or differently?
If companies like FedEx aren’t asking themselves questions like these, Amazon could become their next leading competitor. And if you aren’t asking the same questions to challenge your thinking, your capacity to change won’t keep up with the pace of change around you.
As we enter 2019, we have to be thinking about the future more than we have in the past. Our mind-sets have to be open and ready to change before we need to.
Ready to get started? Here’s a tool that you can use to help you radically shift your thinking. It’s a one-page infographic to help you consider your current situation, the assumptions and beliefs that may be driving your decision making, and new questions to challenge your point of view.