They say the world is changing at an increasingly fast pace. They say the world is now more and more VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) and they say it will be even more so in the future, with constant disruptions and massive changes brought to us by technology, climate change, demographic shifts and changes on the way we work, consume and spend our leisure time. They also say crises are accelerators of these underlaying change processes and that the crisis we are currently suffering will speed up the massive changes we are seeing in our society, ushering in the Future of Work sooner than expected. They say all those things, and I agree.
What they do not say so much, or at least I do not hear it so often, is that if we are to succeed in this new VUCA times, we will need a new type of leader. The competencies, mindsets, attitudes and general attributes that made a leader successful five or ten years ago, will not be enough to make a leader successful today, and even less so in ten or twenty years’ from now.
I think it is time to start thinking and debating on the type of leader we will need to take us out of this crisis and lead us into success in the future.
Below I have listed some of the attributes (it is a mix of different categories, some could be categorized as competencies or skills, whereas others are mindsets, so I decided to call them all attributes) that I think leaders will need to display in order to be great leaders in the future. Please note that when I talk about leaders, I generally refer to the corporate ones (I am a HR professional after all!), and not the ones of the political kind, of whom I will not presume to have a professional opinion. Still, I am sure that we would also benefit considerably if our political leaders of tomorrow had all or some of these attributes.
Last week I wrote about the importance and benefits of having companies with a purpose and who aim at creating societal value. Basically everything I said about organisations applies also to leaders. Leaders need to have a purpose, a WHY, and then a vision of the future that makes us want to follow them. It is the most basic tenant of leadership. It was like that twenty years ago and it will be even more so in the future, because the context is changing. Increasingly, employees are looking for meaning and a purpose when they join a company, even more so the millennials and the generation Z that is entering the workplace now. They want to grow, learn, feel recognised and all those things we all want of course, but they want to do it also by having a positive impact on society.
They want to create value for all, they want to search for a higher purpose, and they will only follow the leader that shows them the way to it.
Bob Johansen* warns us about the risks of certainty and postulates the value of clarity: the future will reward clarity but punish certainty. A leader with a Purposeful Vision knows that the world is complex and difficult to understand, but has clarity on what she wants to achieve and why, can instill that clarity on her team and the wider organisation, sees possible futures other people cannot see and finds a clear path amidst the confusion.
Emotional intelligence was made popular by Daniel Goleman’s book of the same name in 1995, so it is not a new concept, but it is arguably the most important factor of success on a leader today and it will continue being important in the future. Emotional intelligence is about knowing yourself, your emotional responses and what they are telling you; being aware of others’ emotions and feelings; managing your own emotions and managing your relationships with others. It makes you understand better what is happening inside you and others, and thus be more successful on your relationships. The leaders of the future will continue having to engage and motivate people, so emotional intelligence will continue being an essential resource in the great leader’s toolkit.
Ability to harness AI
This is a peculiar competency. You will not see it in the typical management books, not yet at least, but it will be key in the near future. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is becoming ubiquitous in all our business processes and functions and it will be more so in the future, as it pervades all the areas in our lives. We see intelligence as a homogeneous, mono-dimensional entity measured by IQ, but in reality is multifaceted and multidimensional. There is the emotional intelligence mentioned above, deductive reasoning, spatial intelligence, the musical one… to mention just a few. AI excels at some types of intelligence, like for example analysing large amounts of data or replicating repetitive tasks with the same precision, and will get much better than us in these and other areas, but humans will still be superior (at least for the short and medium term) in some others, like for example emotional intelligence and human interaction, creativity, innovation, using judgement in ambiguous situations or linking different types of intelligences. Like it has happened in chess with the arrival of the so-called centaurs (teams composed of humans and AI) after Deep Blue beat Kasparov in 1997, the most effective teams will be those composed by humans and machines, with each team member playing to their strengths.
Enter the leader of the future. This leader knows AI is not more of the same, so will harness and maximise the complementary intelligences of humans and AI, will know what their team and organization can achieve thanks to their talents and their AI capabilities, will optimize processes and create new ways of working by understanding well how humans and machines can work best together. She will look at the environment and will know how to find solutions thanks to the symbiosis between humans and machines. She will get the most of her team, from the combination of their human and artificial intelligences.
In the hyper-competitive world of the future, “Innovate or Perish!” will be one of the new commandments. Change will be the only constant and in this context the leader with the Innovation Mindset will thrive. Innovation Mindset is about embracing change and knowing it brings risks, but also opportunities; about taking those risks and finding the opportunities where others don’t see them; about accepting failure as a necessary step for learning and growth. In this sense, the innovation mindset is linked to Dweck’s Growth Mindset, (people with this mindset believe intelligence can be developed, will embrace challenges and obstacles as means for growth and will accept errors as learning opportunities, as opposed to people with the Fixed Mindset, who believe intelligence is static, will shy away from challenges and take errors as failure and proof of lower intelligence), but it goes beyond that.
Leaders with the Innovation Mindset observe how others behave and learn from them, experiment constantly to see what insights and learnings they get, challenge the status quo, think out of the box, and listen and network with others to get different viewpoints and perspectives. They try, learn, try again, fail, try again… They fail early so they can succeed later.
Innovation doesn’t have to do with technology, or not exclusively with it. Someone with the Innovation Mindset is someone with an open mind, like a small child who is looking at the world for the first time, amazed by everything she sees in the world, seeing it for what it is exactly and not for what she wants it to be, making new connections about it and seeing endless opportunities.
The world is getting more globalized every year and no Trump or Covid-19 will change that. True, we will probably travel less after the pandemic is over, but the world is getting smaller, and we are closer to each other than ever. The leaders of today and the future need to have the mental agility to understand that there are people with different worldviews and values, basically with different lenses with which to look at things, and that there are no right and wrong ways of doing so.
When I talk about culture I am not talking about a country or nationality only, but I am taking a wider definition that sees culture as a group with shared values, rules, symbols and worldviews… it could relate to my company culture or the culture of my profession. We all are part of different cultures informing our worldviews. These cultures will be more and more mixed, and often in conflict, in the future, and the successful leader will know how to navigate this amalgam of different and diverse worldviews and make the most of it.
This competency is about accepting and embracing the different, making the diverse feel included, listening with humility, being nimble, engaging the others even if they come from conflicting positions.
It is about bringing together polarizing, opposing or conflicting positions.
These were my top five attributes of the leader of the future, but is the leader born or made? No leader is born with all these attributes, but the good news is that they can be developed and learned, through mentoring and coaching, by daring to try new things and failing, opening the mind to others, traveling, reading, playing a game immersed in Virtual Reality (the learning method of choice in the future) and by being open about the wondrous things life puts in front of us.
I think the leader that possesses a Purposeful Vision, Emotional Intelligence, the Ability to Harness the Power of AI, an Innovation Mindset and Cultural Agility will have more chances to be successful in the future. This is my personal selection. It is not right nor wrong: it is just my opinion. Now I am interested on reading yours. What do you think are the attributes of the leader of the future? Did I miss anything? Or should one of these not be here? I am very interested on learning what others think about this topic, so please leave your thoughts in the comments below.
*Johansen, Bob. “Leaders Make the Future. Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World”. 2012, Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc.