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Leaders Make the Future

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We are in a time of accelerating disruptive change. In a VUCA world—one characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—traditional leadership skills won’t be enough, noted futurist Bob Johansen argues. Drawing on the latest forecasts from the Institute for the Future—the first futures think tank ever to outlive its forecasts—this powerful book explores the external forces that are shaking the foundations of leadership and unveils ten critical new leadership skills.

How adroit are you at dilemma flipping—turning problems that can’t be solved into opportunities? Can you develop bio-empathy—the ability to learn from and apply the principles of nature in your leadership? Are you able to practice immersive learning—dive into very different-from-you physical and online worlds and learn from them? Johansen provides role models, tools, and advice to help you develop these and seven other future leadership skills.

In addition, Johansen deals with two new forces that are shaping the future. The first is the “digital natives”—people fifteen years and younger who have grown up in a digital world. The second is cloud-based supercomputing, which will enable extraordinarily rich new forms of connection, collaboration, and commerce.

In this thoroughly updated and expanded second edition, Johansen is joined by the prestigious Center for Creative Leadership. CCL’s contributions help readers understand the new leadership skills by linking them to existing skills, and they provide analytics and exercises so readers can more fully develop these new skills.

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13 Chapters

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1 Maker Instinct


Ability to exploit your inner drive to build and grow things,
as well as connect with others in the making.

YOU HAVE NO CHOICE about whether or not to have maker instinct; everyone has it. You can choose, however, whether or not to let your maker instinct lie dormant or express itself. Leaders can choose whether or not to encourage people in their organizations to express their maker instinct.

The instinct to make is built into our language and ways of seeing the world. Ponder this long—but still only partial—list of maker idioms in daily use all around us:

Making sense

Making time

Making money

Making ends meet

Making peace

Making love

Making war

Making hay

Making work

Making waves

Making every effort

Making music

Making fun

Making light of things

Making blood run cold

Making certain

Making contact

Making clear

Making a fool out of someone

Making friends

Making concessions

Making calm

Making common cause with

Making history

Make my day

The maker instinct is everywhere. The challenge is to turn the universal urge to make into a leadership skill, to synchronize the maker instinct of leaders with maker instinct of others. Many people dont realize their own maker instinct and potential. It must be recognized, valued, and nurtured if it is to become a leadership skill for the future. The maker instinct is key to making the future.


2 Clarity


Ability to see through messes and contradictions to a future
that others cannot yet see. Leaders must be clear about
what they are making but flexible about how it gets made.

ON DECEMBER 17, 2007, I was at the end of a twenty-hour British Airways trip from San Francisco to Milan, via London. Just before we landed, the flight attendant asked me to put away my laptop, so I stood the computer on its side under the seat in front of me, right up against the seat frame, which was not my usual habit. I was so tired from the trip that I had lost the ability to think clearly.1 When we landed in Milan, I got caught up in the race for customs and left my MacBook behind. I didnt realize I had lost it until later that night in my hotel room when I was unpacking. What a shock! Still, I naively thought I would get it back quickly. I was at a very nice hotel and the concierge had a transcendent presence that assured me he could solve any problem elegantly. I slept pretty well, almost expecting that my laptop would be returned to me at the hotel the next morning. Here you are, sir. Sorry for the inconvenience, the concierge would say as he delivered my laptop in a Four Seasons envelope.


3 Dilemma Flipping


Ability to turn dilemmas—
which, unlike problems, cannot be solved—
into advantages and opportunities.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.


HOLDING TWO OPPOSING IDEAS in mind will be even more important in the future than it was when Fitzgerald made this observation in 1936. In fact, there will sometimes be more than two opposing ideas—all of which have some validity.

The dilemmas of the future will be more grating, more gnawing, and more likely to induce feelings of hopelessness. Leaders must be able to flip dilemmas around and find the hidden opportunities. Leaders must avoid oversimplifying or pretending that dilemmas are problems that can be solved. Dilemma flipping is a skill that leaders will need in order to win in a world dominated by problems that nobody can solve. Top leaders will deal mostly with dilemmas. There will still be plenty of problems to solve, but people who work for the leaders will solve them. Top leaders will rarely get the satisfaction of solving a problem.


4 Immersive Learning Ability


Ability to immerse yourself in unfamiliar environments,
to learn from them in a first-person way.

IN 1997, DR. SCOTT DYE had both of his own healthy knees inspected without anesthetic (that is, cut open and probed for pain sensitivity by an orthopedic colleague). Dr. Dye immersed himself in pain so that he could answer the following question very personally and very specifically: what are the sources of pain his patients are experiencing in their knees? This is a dramatic—and painful—example of immersive learning ability.

If you are trying to help people relieve their knee pain, the best way to learn about that pain is to experience it yourself. Dr. Dye is an associate clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at UCSF who runs the San Francisco Knee Clinic. Dr. Dye describes his pain-seeking immersive learning experience with charming academic understatement in a medical journal article:

Penetration of the unanesthetized anterior synovium and fat pad region during the initial examination of the right knee produced severe pain that elicited involuntary verbal exclamations from the subject [Dr. Dye himself] and nearly resulted in the cessation of the study. Further documentation of this sensory finding in the left knee was thought to be unnecessary.1


5 Bio-Empathy


Ability to see things from natures point of view;
to understand, respect, and learn from its patterns.

A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in ones accurate
consciousness of the lives and the world from which the food comes.


EATING IS EVERYONES EVERYDAY LINK with nature. If we eat with consciousness about where our food comes from, we have the potential to empathize more deeply with natural processes. Eating with awareness is one form of bio-empathy, the ability to learn from nature. Bio-empathy applies to many different forms of leadership in many different ways. Bio-empathy is leadership through a natural filter. What are the underlying patterns of nature that could inform how leaders lead? Nature can help us make sense of the VUCA World, if only we humans can understand its lessons.

In Virginias Shenandoah Valley, three generations of the Salatin family have run Polyface Farm since 1961 using the following principles, which do a great job of expressing bio-empathy in practice:


6 Constructive Depolarizing


Ability to calm tense situations where
differences dominate and communication has broken down—
and bring people from divergent cultures
toward positive engagement.

Very little good has ever been done by the absolute shall.


NEUROLOGIST ROBERT BURTON is studying the neuroscience of certainty. He writes: Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of knowing we know arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love and anger, function independently of reason.2

Burtons conclusions show how neuroscience will shake our understanding of leadership over the next decade. The title of his book on certainty is both revealing and provocative: On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When Youre Not. How many leaders have you seen who know they are right, even if they are wrong?

Clarity is critical for leaders, as I discussed in Chapter 2, but certainty is downright dangerous. In a VUCA World, many will be attracted to absolute shalls and leaders will have to engage with these polarized and polarizing advocates who drive wedges between others.


7 Quiet Transparency


Ability to be open and authentic about what matters—without being overly self-promoting.

THE MAKE: MAGAZINE MOTTO, If you cant open it, you dont own it,1 is a call—really a demand—for transparency. Transparency is rooted in the maker instinct. Peoples curiosity and knowledge about how things are made has always been there but will increase dramatically. Where did those ingredients come from? What standards of safety were used? How green were the factories? Who were the workers and how were they treated? Quiet transparency is also necessary for constructive depolarization. Quiet transparency starts from being quiet and listening. Creating calm. Listening for the future.

New technology, such as cheap sensors everywhere and wireless connectivity, will fuel the growth of transparency—whether leaders like it or not. Transparency often wont be as easy or even as desirable as it sounds in the abstract. Although increasing transparency is inevitable, definitions of transparency will vary.

Companies and their leaders are being called upon to be transparent at every step of a products life cycle. If leaders arent transparent, others are likely to force it and the transparency they force may be neither accurate nor pretty. Transparency is in the eye of the beholder, or in the metrics of the people doing the measuring. If you dont measure yourself, you are likely to be measured by others. Measure or be measured is a current motto, but measure and be measured may be more accurate.


8 Rapid Prototyping


Ability to create quick early versions of innovations, with the expectation that later success will require early failures.

When we change the way we communicate, we change society.


IN ORDER TO MAKE THE FUTURE, you have to prototype it first. The resources for rapid prototyping will be magnified and amplified incredibly over the next decade, as Clay Shirkys work points out convincingly:

This linking together in turn lets us tap our cognitive surplus, the trillion hours a year of free time the educated population of the planet has to spend doing things they care about. In the 20th century, the bulk of that time was spent watching television, but our cognitive surplus is so enormous that diverting even a tiny fraction of time from consumption to participation can create enormous positive effects.1

Prototyping is not new, but the art of rapid prototyping will be changed in profound ways by cloud-served supercomputing.

When I took my first computer programming class in 1970 at Northwestern, the professor noted that the two best programmers he had ever seen had extremely different strategies. One great programmer would carefully write out and mentally test his program before submitting it. (These were the days of batch processing where you brought your card deck to a large central computer.) The other great programmer would do a quick and dirty version and submit it right away to get the diagnosis of what did not work. The latter approach, I have now come to appreciate, was an early version of what we now call rapid prototyping.


9 Smart-Mob Organizing


Ability to create, engage with, and nurture purposeful business or social change networks through intelligent use of electronic and other media.

A SMART MOB SPARKED DISRUPTIVE CHANGE in Cairo, Egypt, in January of 2011. Fueled by educated young people who could not find jobs and were frustrated by the policies of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, this smart mob (actually, a loosely orchestrated collection of smart mobs) was amplified by social media in 2011. The Arab Spring that followed only hints at what will be possible ten years from now, when the digital natives are in their twenties and social media are much more sophisticated than they are today.

I was surprised that these creative young people were able to organize themselves with todays relatively crude social media. It is obvious to me that ten years from now, however, the smart mobs will be so much smarter since social media will be so much better and digital natives will be coming of age. The Arab Spring is just an early signal of what is likely to happen if serious economic rebalancing is not undertaken soon.


10 Commons Creating


Ability to seed, nurture, and grow shared assets
that can benefit all players—
and allow competition at a higher level.

COMMONS CREATING IS THE ABILITY to make common cause with others for greater benefit.

Digital connectivity will radically improve our ability to grow new commons and new forms of value exchanges. I believe that the more connected you are, the freer and safer you will be—in spite of the new dangers that connectivity will introduce. Connectivity can only make you free and safe, however, if you nurture it and keep the social network alive. As a planet, we are searching for new common ground. What is it that we have in common that could make the world a better place for more people?

New commons are shared resources that create platforms for generating wealth and value. Commons grow out of connectivity. New commons employ win-win logic, rather than win-lose logic. New commons allow multiple parties to win.

Commons creating is the most advanced and the most important of the ten future leadership skills. As we move into the next decade, expect a wide range of new commons structures. Consider these diverse examples from todays world as prototypes for where we will be going.


11 Future Immersion for Leadership Development


SINCE THE FIRST EDITION of Leaders Make the Future came out three years ago, I have contributed to more than 150 leadership development programs for a wide range of corporate, nonprofit, and government organizations. Im typically scheduled on the first day, to set a futures context for leadership development by providing an outside-in view.

Im convinced that the best way to learn about the future is to immerse yourself in it. Since the future is already here, your challenge will be to listen for that unevenly distributed future and figure out a way to navigate through it.

Leadership development programs, when designed as immersive learning experiences, can prepare leaders for the future. Traditional lecture or classroom-based training programs will not be enough.

This book is not meant to replace current talent and leadership models but rather to provide a futures lens for you to reconsider the models you are using and the programs that you employ to develop leaders.

Figure 23 shows CCLs model for developing individual leaders: Direction, Alignment, and Commitment (what many in the leadership development world call the DAC Model). Leadership development programs, at their best, provide vivid experiences at direction setting, alignment nurturing, and commitment building. Leadership Direction is particularly important in a VUCA World where confusion is everywhere. Alignment is also extremely difficult in a world that is increasingly polarized. Leaders need the ability to see beyond the polarities of the present. Dilemma Flipping and Constructive Depolarizing will be critical leadership skills to achieve alignment in a VUCA World. Alignment requires openness to others. Exclusionary thinking can make alignment impossible, particularly if leaders get caught in a bubble of their own rigid beliefs. Commitment is necessary to move from insight to action, to make things happen. Creating engagement and commitment will be increasingly difficult in the jagged world of the future. Commitment comes through reciprocity, giving to get larger value over the long run.


12 Learning the Ten Future Leadership Skills Yourself


It is often the statement made with an eye to the future that is most suspect.


I WANT TO END this second edition with a focus on what you can do to prepare yourself for the VUCA World of the future—even if you dont have a progressive leadership development program to attend. Many people asked me after the first edition: What can I do to develop my own future leadership skills? This chapter is my response to that question. Leaders can make the future if they have the right skills. Leaders can even win over skeptics who view these statements about the future as suspect. Making the future is much better—and often easier—than talking about it.

Given the future forces of the next decade, where do you stack up? Are you ready to lead in a future that will be volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous? How could you improve your own readiness? Your own resilience? How could you develop and use the ten future leadership skills described in this book?



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