Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World

Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World

by Bob Johansen, John R. Ryan

Hardcover(Second Edition,Revised and Expanded with Tools and Resources)

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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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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609944872
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 05/07/2012
Series: Bk Business Series
Edition description: Second Edition,Revised and Expanded with Tools and Resources
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 181,007
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Bob Johansen has been helping organizations around the world prepare for and shape the future for more than thirty years. Currently a Distinguished Fellow with the Institute for the Future (IFTF), he was IFTF’s president from 1996 to 2004. His work has been influential to IFTF clients such as Procter & Gamble, Tesco, UPS, Disney, Hallmark, KnowledgeWorks Foundation, United Cerebral Palsy, and other leading organizations. He is the author or coauthor of seven previous books, including Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present.

Read an Excerpt

Listening for the Future

If a man take no thought of what is distant,
he will find sorrow near at hand.


LISTENING FOR THE FUTURE is hard work. Leaders must learn how to listen through the noise of a VUCA World of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.

But leaders can make a better future. We need not and should not passively accept any future as a given. Disciplined use of foresight can help leaders make better decisions today. There is short-term value in long-term thinking.

It is hard to think about the future, however, if you are overwhelmed by the present. Surprisingly, when the present becomes most overpowering, foresight becomes most useful. A global futures perspective can help leaders make a way through the chaos of the present. Looking to the future can help you decide what to do right now.

Many leaders today are overwhelmed by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA). Some of their leadership behaviors are not constructive, and the prospects for leadership in the future are far from secure.

In these troubled times, many leaders are judging too soon and judging too simplistically. Others are deciding too late and paying a price for their slowness or lack of courage. Some leaders react to the VUCA World with anger and disdain. Some pick a side and start to fight. And some leaders truly believe that the chaos will go away as things somehow get back to what they remember (often romantically) as normal. Such leadership responses are understandable, but they are also dysfunctional and dangerous.

When I listen for the future, I hear four overarching messages:

1. The VUCA World of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity will get worse in the future.1 Solvable problems will still abound, but senior leaders will deal mostly with dilemmas, which have no solutions, yet leaders will have to make decisions and figure out how to win anyway. Many people are already living in a VUCA soup most of the time—especially people on the wrong side of the rich–poor gap.

While I was writing the first edition of this book in 2008, the VUCA world got a lot easier for me to explain as the markets around the world shook—and they are continuing to shake intermittently. Since the first edition, the VUCA World has gotten even more intense and obvious. More financial crises have shaken the markets, but so have a series of natural (or semi-natural) VUCA World events. On April 15, 2010, for example, I was in London talking about Leaders Make the Future with a group of innovation leaders from all around Europe. My morning keynote focused on the VUCA World and cloud computing. That afternoon, a cloud of volcanic ash descended upon London and closed British air space for the first time in history. I was grounded, with many others, in London for a week—at twelve-hour intervals, with no idea how long the shutdown would go on. Later that same week, the infamous BP oil spill erupted in the Gulf of Mexico. Two global VUCA events in one week.

If you are not confused by current events, you are not paying attention.

2. The VUCA World will have both danger and opportunity. Leaders will be buffeted, but they need not allow themselves to be overwhelmed, depressed, or immobilized. Some of those in authority positions today have turned nasty out of frustration. Leaders must do more than just respond to the whirl of events, though respond they must. Leaders can make their way in the midst of chaos. Some things can get better, even as other things get worse. You cannot listen for the future if you are deafened by the present or stuck in the past. Signals from the future are already here, all around us. There is also lots of meaningless noise, however, and leaders must learn to distinguish the signals from the noise.

We don’t just live in the present. We are rooted in the past and we have chances to make the future. The VUCA World, even with all its threats, is loaded with opportunity.

3. Leaders must learn new skills in order to make a better future. Traditional leadership practices will not be enough to deal with startling external future forces. Leaders must have new skills to take advantage of VUCA opportunities—as well as the agility to sidestep the dangers.

This book introduces ten new leadership skills for the future: maker instinct, clarity, dilemma flipping, immersive learning ability, bio-empathy, constructive depolarization, quiet transparency, rapid prototyping, smart-mob organizing, and commons creating. When I completed the first edition, I assumed that others would suggest new leadership skills—beyond the ten I identified. To my surprise, in the hundreds of workshops we have done over the last three years, there were no obvious additional future leadership skills that were suggested to me. I am now confident that these ten future leadership skills cover most of the territory—even though the language to describe the skills may vary from organization to organization.

4. Something more is needed than traditional approaches to leadership development and executive training. In order to increase their own readiness and ability to make the future, leaders must immerse themselves in the future and practice their skills in a low-risk environment.

This will be a recurring theme in this book: immersion in the future. Leaders must immerse themselves in the future (through games and immersion experiences) and return to the present ready to make a better future.

Our societal ways of thinking about the future have shifted fundamentally. This artifact came from the 1964 World’s Fair Futurama pavilion sponsored by General Motors. (See Figure 1.) Made of lightweight metal and designed so that it could be attached to your pocket or shirt, the motto reveals the prevailing public view of the future in 1964. In those days, thinking about the future was the mysterious territory of government, science, and very large companies such as General Motors. The future was distant and driven by technology and science. The future was created by others in positions of authority. The rest of us were supposed to accept the future with awe and applause, not create the future—except for small energetic pockets of activists that always felt they could make the future.


FIGURE 1. Badge from 1964 World’s Fair Futurama pavilion sponsored by General Motors. Source: IFTF personal GM artifact, 2008.

Today, is anyone trusting GM—or any other large corporation for that matter—to create the future? I think not. We think GM will survive, and most of us hope they will succeed, but few are counting on GM to make the future. Today’s consumers expect to make the future themselves and they don’t like to be called “consumers.” Consumption will be reimagined in the future world they are creating. Consumption won’t go away, but it will be different and people won’t be called consumers.

In 1964, the future looked so complicated that everyday people could only glimpse it if the big companies, powerful government agencies, and scientists allowed them to do so. The distant iconic leaders in this world were trusted to create the future for the rest of us.

In 2008, after discovering this 1964 vision of the future, my colleague Jason Tester, who designs artifacts from the future at IFTF (he calls this art human/future interface), hacked the original slogan “I have seen the future” and injected it with modern maker spirit. (See Figure 2.)


FIGURE 2. New version of an old slogan. Source: IFTF, The Future of Making, 2008. SR# 1154.

This artifact captures the spirit of futures thinking today. Big companies, government agencies, or universities are no longer trusted to create the future. “I am making the future” is a call to action, with an attitude.

The maker instinct is the most basic future leadership skill, and it energizes every other skill. All ten of the future leadership skills proposed in this book build on each other and work together. Clarity, for example, wraps a leader’s vision in practical but inspirational language that motivates people through chaos. Commons Creating is the most ambitious, demanding, and important new leadership skill. Every leadership skill is linked to every other skill, and leaders need to decide which skills to emphasize when. Leadership teams need a mix of these future-inspired leadership skills.

On the map inside the book jacket is a summary of the external future forces that will shape leadership over the next decade. Leadership must change because of the external future forces we are facing.

The global rich–poor gap is the most basic and the most extreme future force—and the gap is growing dangerously. People who are poor already experience the VUCA World: their lives are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous every day. Realistically and sadly, it is hard to forecast a narrowing of this gap, but easy to imagine it getting wider.

In Get There Early, I wrote an entire chapter on “The VUCA World: Danger and Opportunity.” VUCA is not new. There has been plenty of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity for leaders to deal with (or not) in the past. The need for leadership in the face of uncertainty is also not new. Life has always had its VUCA elements, and leaders have always lived VUCA lives. But I think the next ten years will be different.

What will be new in the years ahead is the scale and intensity of the VUCA World. Having spent forty years forecasting, I believe that the future world will be more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than we have ever experienced as a planet before.

In my nearly forty years of ten-year forecasting, the forecast inside the book jacket of Leaders Make the Future is the most frightening I have ever done. It is also, however, the most hopeful forecast I have ever done.

It bears repeating that nobody can predict the future. The purpose of forecasting is to provoke, not predict. I hope that this forecast provokes new insight about how to avoid the most dire aspects of this forecast. Many people, I hope, will dedicate themselves to proving this forecast wrong. There are many elements of this forecast that I hope will not occur. I hope that leaders will be smart enough to avoid them.

One of my jobs as a forecaster is to help people learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable—but certainly not passively comfortable. The most important value of forecasting is to help people learn to lead energetically even if they feel uneasy. As a forecaster, I am seeking to empower, not overwhelm. Discomfort will come with the territory for the next ten years—but the possibilities for positive action are everywhere.


FIGURE 3. The Foresight → Insight → Action Cycle. See Get There Early for more detail. Source: IFTF, 2007. SR# 1038.

Leaders must get used to an amplified VUCA World and learn to like it. If you are lucky enough to experience a future that is less chaotic, take it as a blessing and be happy that you are prepared to be surprised, since you are still likely to experience surprises later. For most leaders, very few experiences will be predictable or slow moving.

Figure 3 summarizes the Foresight to Insight to Action Cycle that I introduced in detail in Get There Early. Foresight provokes Insight; Insight seeds Action. The purpose of forecasting is to make better decisions in the present.

Notice the positive definition of VUCA inside the Foresight to Insight to Action Cycle. Leaders in the future will need to have Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility. The VUCA World is not unyielding:

• Volatility yields to vision.

• Uncertainty yields to understanding.

• Complexity yields to clarity.

• Ambiguity yields to agility.

The biggest danger is getting caught off guard, but you can control that by preparing yourself and your organization. The best way to begin your preparation is to listen ten years ahead, but you must listen through the awful noise.

Ten Years Ahead: The Magic Time Frame

Making the future begins with listening. Even in a VUCA World, the directions of change are usually discernible—if you listen carefully. The large hot zones on the map (see inside book jacket) highlight the zones where change is most likely to erupt. At Institute for the Future, we’ve found that the sweet spot for forecasting is about ten years ahead. Ten years is far enough in the future to be beyond the planning horizon of most organizations, yet it is not so far out that it seems unbelievable or irrelevant. Ten years is also far enough ahead to see clear patterns that are not visible in the noise of the present.

Starting from Institute for the Future forecasts, this book looks ahead to explore the leadership skills that will be necessary to succeed in the future. This introduction gives a tour of the forecast. I recommend taking off the book jacket and leaving the map open as you read this Introduction.

As a forecaster, I can provoke you with foresight, but it is up to you to come up with your own insight and actions. Again, it doesn’t matter if you agree with my forecast or not. In fact, some of the best forecasts are those that you don’t like, those that make you squirm in your chair. Forecasting is about provocation, not prediction. Nobody can predict—especially in a VUCA World.

Each chapter is organized around a future leadership skill. Then links are made between the forecast and how it is provoking the need for that particular skill. Each of the ten future leadership skills corresponds to an iconic image that leads each chapter. These Zen-like images are intended to evoke the emotions of that particular skill. Artist and documentary filmmaker Anthony Weeks, who has worked with me for years to visualize the futures that we discuss in our workshops, has created the icons for each future leadership skill.

When you take off the book jacket and study the forecast, notice the look and feel of this map. It is an organic matrix that aptly represents the forecast for the next ten years in that we are moving into a world in which changes will unfold organically and also threaten nature. Engineering and mechanical thinking drove the last economic era; the next era will be driven by biology and what we are starting to refer to as the global well-being economy, which includes sick-care, wellness, and all the various aspects of well-being such as financial, social, physical, vocational, and spiritual. The forecast map is linked to nature in underlying metaphors and background graphics. This forecast sets a futures context for the rest of the book. These future forces will shape leaders and they will define leadership.

The book jacket forecast map summarizes on one page the external future forces that will be important for future leaders to consider. To the right of the map, you see the ten leadership abilities that are most important for this future world. The ten chapters that follow describe each of those skills, along with the abilities, competencies, and traits that will fit together to create a new leadership profile for the future. The book concludes with personal guidelines for future leaders, with a focus on what you can do to be more prepared for the future you intend to make.

Extreme imbalances in wealth are fundamental disruptors. For much of the world, hunger, safety, and subsistence are daily challenges. It is hard to do a ten-year forecast where the rich–poor gap gets smaller; it is easy to do a forecast where it gets larger. IFTF’s annual Ten-Year Forecast for 2011–2021 said it this way:

Resilience may be defined as the ability to adapt to changes in a socially positive way. While lack of education, exposure to violence and simply poor social skills all undermine resilience, the greatest threat to resilience is persistent poverty … worldwide the richest one percent earn as much as the bottom 57 percent.2

Two New Known Unknowns on the Map

The second edition ten-year forecast map includes two new central forces at the center of the map: digital natives and cloud-served supercomputing. I think of these future forces as known unknowns. Each force is known to some extent, but what we know is likely to be misleading compared to what we don’t know. These two future forces are both obvious in some ways and wildly unpredictable in others. These two known unknowns will bend, shape, and stretch all ten of the future leadership skills. These two future forces were both implicit in the first edition, but I did not emphasize them enough.

The digital natives will be a disruptive force on a scale that we cannot yet imagine. I define a digital native as someone who is sixteen years old or younger in 2012. For those twenty-five or younger, the definition of a generation has shrunk to about six years, and it is still shrinking. Thus, the young people entering the workforce today (the twenty-somethings) are very connected via today’s social media—but they are too old to be true digital natives. They should not be taken too seriously.

We know that whatever media ecology is present at the time a child becomes an adult will influence that person for the rest of his or her life. This is the first generation of young people to become adults in the emerging worlds of social media and cloud computing. We know how to assess and even predict demographics at a macro level, but we don’t know how the brains and the behavior of the digital natives will be different—given their exposure to this unprecedented mix of new media. We know about demography—demographics are predictable in a macro sense—but we don’t yet know just how the digital natives will be different nor how they will change the world.

Even though they were not digital natives, the 2011 protesters in Egypt give us an early hint of what the future may look like. Many of them had been educated but could not find jobs, so they had little hope. By 2021, everyone on the planet twenty-five years and younger will be a digital native. Unless we find a way to narrow the rich–poor gap over the next nine years, a significant portion of those digital natives will be hungry, hopeless, educated (formally or informally), and connected. This frightening forecast is a probability, not a possibility.

Digital Natives: The generation that will change the world. These are the key knowns and unknowns for leaders to consider:


• This age cohort will be the first generation in history to become adults in the emerging world of social media.

• This generation has grown up with video gaming and the vivid user interfaces that gaming provides—as well as a lot of content that has been intensively violent and sexual.

• An access gap in technology still exists, but what used to be called the “digital divide” is no longer an either/or. No matter how poor you are, you already have some access to connectivity—and the access will certainly grow. Rich people will have better access to more advanced digital tools, but poor people will still be connected and increasingly so.

• Digital natives seem to filter information differently than older people, given their experiences growing up with more robust media.


The brains of digital natives seem to work differently. Will their brains function differently from other generations—and if so, how? Will they have greater empathy due to their global connectivity, for example? Will cyber bullying be common among the digital natives? Will they lose some ability to concentrate and go deeply into subjects, or could these abilities actually improve? Nobody knows yet, though many people have strong opinions nonetheless. I am surprised that so many people I encounter are negative and even cynical about the digital natives. I myself am optimistic. At least, we should be open-minded about the potential positives they will bring to life, as well as the downsides.

• Will there be lingering impacts from early interactive exposure to overtly violent and sexual video games?

• How will the filtering skills of digital natives play out in terms of their ability to make sense out of complexity? What about their ability to think, to concentrate, and to write?

• Even digital natives who are hungry and hopeless will have increasingly good access to connectivity; we don’t yet know how they will use it, but it is likely to be disruptive—perhaps violently so.

Cloud-served Supercomputing: The network will become the computer. Cloud-served supercomputing will provide a new infrastructure for innovation—and almost everything else. This disruptive shift in how we connect globally will enable and amplify what I think will be the biggest innovation opportunity in history.

We know that cloud computing will allow us to outsource IT, but we don’t know what new forms of connections, collaboration, and commerce will arise. While transactions and early-stage social media dominate today’s Internet, the currency of tomorrow’s cloud will be reciprocity.

Reciprocity-Based Innovation, which I will discuss in more detail in Chapter 10: Commons Creating, will create new opportunities to give things away in intelligent ways, in the faith of getting even more in return. This give-to-get cloud logic will become more apparent and more practical for leaders over the next decade. Increasingly, the cloud will be the context within which leaders will make the future. The best leaders will get extremely skilled in choosing which medium—including in-person meetings—is good for what.

These are the key knowns and unknowns for leaders to consider with regard to cloud-served supercomputing:


• Many current information technology functions will be outsourced to the cloud, but that’s only the beginning—just the horseless-carriage stage of cloud computing.

• Cloud-served computing will mean that many more people will have access to supercomputing capabilities through a variety of access devices to reach shared resources in the cloud.

• People will carry cloud-based filters with them and these filters will guide their shopping and many other aspects of everyday life.

• Cloud-served supercomputing will mean that many more people will have access to connectivity that used to be available only to very large organizations.


• What new models of connection, collaboration, and commerce will become possible through cloud-served supercomputing?

• How will cloud-based filters change the nature of brands, shopping, and advertising?

• Who will offer the best and the most popular trusted filters in the cloud?

• How will the digital natives develop new identities and new models of value exchange in the world of cloud-served supercomputing?

The columns on the map are the most important drivers, or future forces, that leaders should consider. The large circles are hot spots of both threat and opportunity. The small circles around the hot spots are signals that suggest the forecast is already coming to life. The small gray circles are signals that link to more than one hot spot.

Diasporas: New emerging economies. “Diaspora” is a very old word from the Torah that referred to the Jewish people who were separated from the Promised Land. These were people linked to a specific land but “set apart” from that land. The concept of a diaspora is particularly familiar to people who are Jewish or African American, or anyone who has studied the Old Testament. Diaspora is also a very useful concept for understanding the future, but future diasporas will be different. They will be less limited by geography and more amplified through virtual connectivity. Some will still retain deep historical traditions while others will be more modern.

The new diasporas will be values-linked social networks amplified by social media. Many kinds of diasporas will become important, including these:

• Climate-change diasporas, displaced by weather disruptions and linked by a common tragedy, like the massive Hurricane Katrina Diaspora. (See Figure 4.)

• Rural-to-urban diasporas will be common over the next decade, as we shift from being a primarily rural planet to a primarily urban one. Rural-to-urban diasporas are likely to be most dramatic in China, India, and Africa. Many, including children, may be left behind—creating other kinds of disruption and dysfunction.

• Cultural diasporas, such as offshore Chinese or offshore Indian people in the technology industry in Silicon Valley and other parts of the world. Of course, both China and India are so large that there are many different subsets of these diasporas. There are diasporas within diasporas.

• Corporate diasporas, such as alumni of McKinsey, P&G, IBM, or Apple. Companies that abide by the maxim “We’re in it for the long run” include both current and former employees—as well as close friends of the family, suppliers, contractors, and others. You may no longer be an employee, but you can always be a member of the corporate diaspora.

• Bio-diasporas, which share biological traits, health conditions, or biometric markers. People with similar disease states, for example, form very strong support groups and are very effective users of the Internet, through sites such as patientslikeme.

• Financial diasporas, such as the Islamic financial communities that are creating new kinds of mortgages, bonds, insurance, and even currencies within the belief system or theology of the Islamic faith. Islamic finance is not new, but the Western world knew little about it until recently. The models for Islamic finance in a changing political and electronically connected world could change dramatically over the next decade.)

Table of Contents

List of Figures xi

Foreword to the Second Edition John R. Ryan xiii

Preface to the Second Edition xvii

Introduction: Listening for the Future 1

1 Maker Instinct 27

2 Clarity 42

3 Dilemma Flipping 56

4 Immersive Learning Ability 75

5 Bio-Empathy 95

6 Constructive Depolarizing 110

7 Quiet Transparency 125

8 Rapid Prototyping 139

9 Smart-Mob Organizing 153

10 Commons Creating 165

11 Future Immersion For Leadership Development 182

12 Learning The Ten Future Leadership Skills Yourself 196

Notes 217

Bibliography 225

Acknowledgments 231

Index 235

About the Author 243

About IFTF 244

About CCL 245

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