“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”—Alan Kay
It’s 2040. Car ownership is no longer a thing. Whole industries have collapsed as a result. Fifty percent of our jobs have been automated. Energy is free. People in developed countries are living to be 120 years old.
We’re not stating that these things will all come to pass, but they all are possible futures. What do our lives look like in that world? Who will be our future leaders, and what challenges and opportunities will they face? What can we do now to begin preparing the leaders of the future to succeed?
We don’t claim to have silver-bullet answers to these questions. But we are going to strongly advocate a new approach to developing future leaders. Exponential times call for what we call exponential leaders—an organization’s change agents and boundary-pushers who are responsible for championing a new vision for the future and establishing an organizational climate and culture that fosters learning, adaptability, and speed.
If you study the future, you’re probably familiar with the Law of Accelerating Returns, in which SU Co-Founder and Chancellor Ray Kurzweil essentially tells us to buckle up and prepare for a rate of rapidly accelerating change that we’ve never witnessed before.
“We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).”—Ray Kurzweil
So, if we think things are changing quickly today, we should consider that this change is only going to continue at an exponential rate. And how should the leaders of tomorrow navigate these exponential changes? The answers are not to be found in the glowing images on a large screen.
Here are some suggestions to inform your thinking that you may not have considered:
- Volunteer as an engaged citizen, and experience firsthand what it takes to build a vibrant, healthy community.
- Do something that terrifies you, and notice how your body and brain react and adapt.
- Sit under a tree for a solid hour, and watch an ant colony at work. Or sit by a tidal pool as the tides change, and study how the ecosystem adapts.
The solutions are right in front of us
How can these reflections make you a better leader? Our natural world has been adapting and evolving for billions of years. If we open our aperture to a broader understanding of the ways the world around us operates, we will find some clues for how to keep pace with constant change.
Look at the way currents flow around the globe to distribute heat and sustain life on land. Can we find inspiration for creating shared value in networks from global systemic patterns? Look to our ancient human impulses and instincts to better understand how we are wired to keep evolving for the future. Can a deeper understanding of our bodies as a large ecosystem help us better manage our development and performance?
The way our natural ecosystem is wired, and the way that we are wired as humans, matters deeply. The deeper our understanding of these behaviors, the more readily we’ll be able to adapt to the changing macroeconomic landscape, cultivate relational ecosystems that organize around mutual benefit, and leverage diversity to create a more inclusive worldview.
Preparing to lead in the future doesn’t require us to buy a seat on SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket to Mars. It requires us to reconnect deeply with the most elemental aspects of being alive.
But, tapping into our human potential and learning from the world around us isn’t sufficient. When we talk about different possible futures, we are talking about exponentially different futures. Harnessing the ancient wisdom of the world around us (and within us) while also unleashing the exponential power of technology will be key attributes of a successful leader in 2040.
Riding the WAVE of leadership
To lead in the future, you not only have to navigate this rapid pace of change—you must also BE the change. You’re probably familiar with the use of S-curves like the ones below to show how innovation cycles in products or business models evolve over time. When you look at this chart from a business performance perspective, you see the lifecycle of technology and innovations. Now, consider this same chart from a personal leadership perspective. What leadership behaviors and routines are needed to successfully navigate those waves of disruption?
In future business environments where accelerated change is the norm, we believe that you need to be the surfer AND the wave. You have to navigate the waters of innovation, while also being the force and energy of change.
To lead your organization into the future, you must constantly adjust and adapt as you embrace exponential technology in order to be the change you want to see in the world. Let’s break down the WAVE to better understand how leaders can begin shaping themselves for the future:
Wonder. In the fifth century, Socrates famously posited that wonder is the beginning of wisdom. To wonder as a leader today, you adopt a “360-degree future” mindset. You envision the future and align your current reality with purpose and intent. You constantly scan the horizon and anticipate which trends might impact your next move. You embrace exponential technology as your context and forecast possible implications of converging technologies. Most importantly, you manage the creative tension between today and the future.
Leadership consideration: What are the behaviors and routines you need to proactively wonder about your desired future?
Adapt. To adapt as a leader, you identify and challenge the biases and assumptions that you hold. You actively turn unconscious bias into conscious action. You unlearn and re-learn as your context continues to shift. You seek and develop alternative perspectives and behaviors, approaching all situations with a “what if?” mindset.
Leadership consideration: How do you constantly challenge the biases that you hold, and adjust as needed?
Value. To create value within your ecosystem, you cultivate and strengthen relationships. As a leader, you engage with uncommon and diverse partners. You adopt a mindset of mutualism in how you make decisions for your organization. You think systemically and understand the interdependencies. You become agile to continually adapt as the ecosystem requires.
Leadership consideration: What are you doing today to provide value to your ecosystem?
Evolve. To evolve as a leader, you actively participate in the evolution of people, your organization, and society. You leverage exponential technologies as an enabler for positive impact. You lead the convergence of people and technology in the workplace. You positively frame the future and create a vision that encourages others to participate. And you build capabilities to experiment and execute—and foster growth for your business, for your team, and for yourself.
Leadership consideration: How are you evolving yourself and your business to drive change?
Riding the WAVE of leadership is a mindset, and also a disciplined and intentional practice. There is no point at which you arrive at your destination. Waves will crash, retreat into the ocean, rise again, crash again. Repeat ad infinitum.
There is no doubt that the decades ahead will demand a new breed of leadership. The question is, will you help lead this evolution? Or will you bury your head in the sand? The changes ahead, and the opportunity to build your own exponential enterprise are too exciting—and too consequential—to simply be a bystander.
We say, grab your surfboard. Come on in, the water’s fine!