WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
The world is changing faster than at any other point in human history, and that change is accelerating. The change is also more complex and dynamic, with more threats and opportunities than ever before, and successfully navigating it requires a new form of leadership.
We all live in increasingly challenging and disruptive times. Cyber attacks, emerging technologies, natural disasters, pandemics, the rising distrust of big tech, governments, and the media, social unrest, and terrorism, occupy more of our attention and more airtime today than ever before. And, needless to say, there have been many recent events that have caught people by surprise.
Two decades ago military planners in the US coined the acronym VUCA, which stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, to capture the nature of our increasingly dynamic, non-stop, and unpredictable world. And today the world embodies VUCA more than any other era.
However, if VUCA is now such a prevalent force in shaping our world then why is it that so many of us, individually and collectively, still fail to imagine, let alone anticipate, many of the massive and disruptive changes that all too frequently unfold in front of our very eyes?
Fuelled by increasingly accessible, affordable, and powerful exponential technologies, and amplified by globalisation and an increasingly digital and connected world, the global rate of change is accelerating, our minds are struggling to keep up, and surprise, worry, and uncertainty are often the inevitable result – no matter where you sit within your organisation.
Also, this is also no anomaly. VUCA isn’t going away, and to compound the situation this accelerating rate of change is in itself accelerating, not slowing down. Ergo, to thrive in a world where “Change is the only constant,” leaders need to replace old frameworks and thinking with new ones.
Exponential change requires a new style of leadership and in this article I’ll explore the four pillars of Exponential Leadership – the four critical skills all leaders must learn if they are to successfully navigate a rapidly changing world, not just to create strategic advantage for their organisations but also to help build the kind of equitable, inclusive, and positive world we all want to live in.
Some leaders already excel at some of these skills. But, an exponential leader strives to master them all, clearly understands how they influence one another, and in practice models them as an integrated whole that is much more powerful than the sum of its individual parts.
The first skill of exponential leadership is learning to transform surprise into mindful anticipation. To do this, leaders have to become skilled futurists.
This does not mean simply extrapolating today’s rate of change into the future. It means imagining new possibilities boldly and optimistically, and understanding they are quite likely to arise sooner than expected. Leaders will also have to get equally comfortable with what can be known and exploring what is unknown – and this isn’t how many leaders currently operate.
Many leaders today still think locally and linearly, not globally and exponentially, and they try to predict the future and manage the risks using analytic processes and frameworks that identify and quantify known, rather than unknown, variables, and subscribe to the belief that the rules that governed yesterday’s world will still apply to tomorrow’s.
All this is further compounded by the fact that in most organisations the future is envisioned through numerical forecasts and spreadsheets, which again, reinforce the perspective that the world is an extension of what we experienced yesterday, and what we know today, in the belief that we can simply plug in some numeric formula to calculate quantifiable predictions that will come to pass.
The problem, however, is these forecasts rely on understanding current variables and existing trends. We see future events as a new version of past events, presuming the pace of change will move in a straight line, linearly. But, in reality the line curves upward exponentially, and new variables, unforeseen technologies, for example, always enter the equation and change the outcome.
The result, therefore, is that the majority of forecasts fall short and at best we’re shocked, and at worst disrupted and out of a job.
It’s not that we aren’t capable of imagining new narratives for the future, or widening the set of plausible or probable futures we consider. It’s mostly that we’ve never been taught how to or given permission to do this as part of our day jobs.
As futurists leaders need to get comfortable asking open ended questions about unspoken assumptions to see new futures and new possibilities. They need to be curious about the future and blend imaginative practices of futures back casting, scenario planning, science fiction design, and strategic foresight into traditional business planning.
THE EXPONENTIAL ENTREPRENEUR
In addition to imagining a range of new futures, leaders must also behave as entrepreneurs, discovering new ideas through creative ideation, exploration, and rigorous experimentation. These days, great product ideas can come from a single tweet or a surprising interaction and can be tested with a working prototype in next to no time.
Yet, despite this, many organisations still focus primarily on getting existing products to market faster while reducing costs and increasing margins while putting tomorrow off until, well, tomorrow – which as the saying goes never comes.
Hence their underlying strategic bet is based on certainty at the expense of variability. And if they are experiencing success, the focus is on defending and expanding what exists and the status quo rather than exploring new opportunities through ongoing exploration.
What’s often missing is a deep understanding of the customer on the other side of the transaction, much less any ongoing investment in designing and developing new products and services to satisfy emerging customer markets and needs.
When leaders embrace their role as entrepreneurs they realise they must always be thinking about the customer. They use human-centered processes, such as observation and questioning, to collect insights, they use visual thinking and storytelling skills to share hypotheses and ideas quickly and effectively, and they embrace a growth mindset to test and gather evidence on what they’ve learned.
The most successful leaders do this continually, iterating over and over to uncover opportunities obscured by the fog of uncertainty.
THE EXPONENTIAL TECHNOLOGIST
As technology development and innovation accelerates leaders have to understand which technologies will directly impact their industry and which will affect adjacent industries. Increasingly, alongside many other of its gifts, technology can decentralise, dematerialise, democratise, and demonetise existing products and services like never before, both changing and disrupting the status quo of many existing organisations.
The best way to understand technological change is not to read about it, but to experience, explore, and experiment with it first hand whether that’s by building robots, immersing yourself in new virtual worlds, learning to code, or simply trying new entrepreneurial products and services that push you beyond the comfortable and the familiar.
However, diving into new paradigms in this way is not enough. Exponential leaders will also have to grapple with the ethical, moral and social implications of the products and technologies they build their organisations around and on.
Technology disruption is quickly outpacing existing laws, regulations, and societal norms. There are already on-going tax and labour feuds between industry disruptors such as Amazon and Uber and the communities they serve.
But those legal battles pale in comparison to the ethical battles we may soon face when workers in large industries such as food, healthcare, or transportation are replaced by automated and autonomous systems. And we’ve hardly begun to explore the implications of a future dominated by increasingly impactful AI, biotech, and compute technologies, as well as hundreds of other exponential technologies, that will impact every corner of global culture, industry, and society.
Policy and ethics are not independent of technology, and technology does not operate in isolation from them either. If leaders bet on the massive new revenue potential or cost saving opportunities that technology offers, they must also embrace the societal and moral implications that will inevitably follow.
This will require a whole new set of discussions and decisions in the boardrooms of every corporation, new behaviours and norms in every product development lab, and new ways of educating, rewarding, and even penalising, tomorrow’s leaders.
Overall, perhaps one of the most endearing traits of exponential leaders is that they use the skills and behaviours of futurists, exponential entrepreneurs, and exponential technologists, to improve the lives of everyone they and their organisations touch, and society as a whole. They aim to do well by doing good, not as a separate set of “Corporate Social Responsibility” activities, but as part of their organisations everyday culture and mission.
Leading as a humanitarian can mean explicitly building a business using technology to create positive impact, and it can also mean investing in humane policies and practices that create a positive culture and a meaningful work environment. A workplace that inspires employees and partners to strive toward their full potential.
Increasingly technology can also generate fundamentally new business models and growth opportunities by enabling and empowering more regions of the world to become sustainable and autonomous economic centers of growth.
When Google’s high-altitude balloons connect the most rural and underdeveloped areas to universal high-speed internet, or drones deliver medical supplies after natural disasters, we can start to imagine a world where the ultimate resource technology amplifies is our imagination to believe anything is possible.
THE WORLD NEEDS EXPONENTIAL LEADERS
These pillars – futurist, exponential entrepreneur, exponential technologist, and humanitarian – are interconnected and enhanced when knowledge and insights flow between them. They are a holistic system of learning to explore, imagine, create, capture and scale hidden value in an increasingly complex and dynamic world. And this is the essence of exponential leadership.
By practicing these new skills all leaders can improve their capacity to not only anticipate change, but also make proactive choices leading to more positive, productive futures for their organisations, communities and the world.