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Leaders Make The Future

By Bob Johansen,

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Berrett-Koehler, 192 pages, $34.95

We live in what futurist Bob Johansen calls a VUCA world - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. And those four features of modern-day life seem to be increasing in intensity.

Yet leaders are expected to shape the future for their organizations despite the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

The Institute For The Future, which Mr. Johansen once headed as president and now serves as a distinguished fellow, believes that, in preparing for the future, it's best to try to predict what will be happening in 10 years time. That period allows you to move beyond the noise of today, to see clear patterns, but is not so distant that forecasts seem unbelievable or irrelevant.

The institute's forecast for the next decade highlights the importance of diasporas - groups of people linked together, now often virtually. It suggests that food will be a flashpoint for conflict between rich and poor as its availability grows sparser. It warns that governments, markets and people will interact in complex ways in the future - after all, China says it has a "socialist market economy" and the Internet has opened us up to new forms of connectivity.

Global climate change will shadow the next decade, and organizations will have to think about the larger ecosystem of which they are a part. Individuals - notably the baby boomers - will seek to extend the human body, finding a new medical tool kit to prolong life.

In this context, Mr. Johansen suggests that leaders will need to learn, or augment, 10 vital skills.

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With names like "dilemma flipping" and "bio-empathy," the skills are not the stuff that we normally encounter in leadership books. But he argues they are "plausible, internally consistent, and provocative statements about what will be most important for leaders in the years ahead."

The skills are:

Maker instinct

This is the inner drive to build, grow and improve things. It's a fundamental ability, upon which all the other skills needed for future leadership are built.

"Leaders will grow, re-grow and re-imagine their own organization again and again. The maker instinct fuels that growth," Mr. Johansen observes.


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Leaders need the ability to see through messes and contradictions, sketching out a future that others can't see, and finding a viable direction to proceed. They must see hope on the other side of trouble. This requires inner strength and discipline.

Dilemma flipping

Problems, he says, can be solved, whereas dilemmas can't; they stay with us. Balancing work and private life, for example, is a dilemma, and won't go away as long as you are working, no matter what adjustments you make.

Dilemma flipping involves reframing an unsolvable challenge as an opportunity. Walt Disney World, aware that customers don't like waiting in line, has tried to flip the dilemma through video entertainment beside the lineups to help pass the time and indicators about how long the wait will be from a particular point.

Immersive learning ability

Leaders must be able to immerse themselves in unfamiliar environments, learning in a first-person way. Toyota urges this instinct by telling managers to go to the scene of a problem and watch. It can also be conducted through simulations, scenario-building, mentoring (which immerses you in someone else's life), and case studies.

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You need the ability to see things from nature's point of view, understanding the big picture and long-term nature of ecological systems. You must understand, respect, and learn from nature's patterns.

Constructive depolarizing

When situations are tense, with differences stark and communications broken down, leaders must be able to bring people together. This is the maker instinct applied to conflict. With many cultures mingling together these days inside and outside our workplaces, leaders must display cross-cultural grace.

Quiet transparency

You must be open and authentic about what matters to you. But this should be grounded in humility. Leaders should be self-effacing and not self-promoting - but open.

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Rapid prototyping

This involves a quick cycle of innovation and refinement. It is vital to be able to create early versions of innovations, getting them on the table quickly to see if they will fly.

Smart mob organizing

Leaders must be able to bring together large groups for common business or social change purposes. "Leaders are what they can organize," he says. "They make connections and draw links."

Commons creating

A commons is a shared asset that benefits multiple players. Future leaders will be called upon to create new commons, to grow new places where collaboration and multiple successes can occur.

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The open source movement, in which people come together to build software or other designs, is an example of this phenomenon.

As I have been writing in the wake of Barack Obama's first months in office, the president's approach comes to mind as an exemplar of many of these leadership skills - even though he is mentioned just once in the book, for his smart mob organizing of supporters in the election campaign.

To the extent he seems a new wave leader, it may be that's because he is tapping into some of these modern skills.

Mr. Johansen says most of the leadership teams he works with are not very strong on bio-empathy. Many leaders today also consider dilemma flipping to be tough, because they rose up the ranks through their ability to solve problems and don't want to grapple with the much tougher category of challenges that won't go away.

The skills are intriguing, but the book isn't all that enthralling. The writing is limp, and the book meanders, as each skill is applied to the future themes, such as diasporas and food.

But it ends well, as he offers a quiz that helps you to evaluate your own ability on the 10 skills and gauge where improvements are necessary.

Just in: Keeping The Millennials (John Wiley, 240 pages, $29.95), by consultants Joanne Sujansky and Jan Ferri-Reed, notes that companies are losing billions of dollars in turnover to this footloose generation, and offers advice on what to do about it.

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