The Future of Leadership: Letting Go of the Past

Nothing gives people an idea of just how tenuous and uncertain the future business environment can be than a natural disaster, says Bob Johansen, a futurist who is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California. So he’d talk about Hurricane Harvey, which lashed the Texas coast for four days in August 2017. 

The storm broke 50-year records for tropical rainfall. It forced tens of thousands of people out of their homes, with no idea when or how they would return. It caused petrochemical explosions and fires, shut down vital infrastructure – everything from oil refineries and rigs to businesses, hospitals, airports, and ports – and sent U.S. gas prices rising. All in, it cost US$125 billion in damage and lost productivity. 

Then COVID-19 arrived. And the localized and self-limiting nature of a regional natural disaster was eclipsed by the impact of a health crisis that’s held economies and people hostage for months on end everywhere at once. 

Johansen was not caught off guard. An applied futurist with four decades of experience, he has been forecasting a global-scale pandemic for some time. However, as he has long suggested, this current crisis is just one of multiple contributors to a future that will see much more turmoil. 

Thanks to the interconnected nature of our world, disruptions such as COVID-19 will become more prevalent and persistent and will have exponentially greater impacts on businesses, governments, and the world. For at least the next decade, Johansen says, we will see an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world – VUCA, to use the military term developed by the U.S. Army War College. 

Woman on the street wearing a mask

The speed, frequency, scope, and scale of disruption from global climate change, cyberterrorism, rolling pandemics, and more are likely to increase, with few clear patterns to the upheavals, according to Johansen’s forecasts. And, as COVID-19 has made clear, most people – business executives included – are not prepared for the extreme dilemmas they will face in the years ahead, Johansen argues. 

“It used to be hard for people to think in those terms,” says Johansen. “But it’s obvious now. What I hope will happen is that this crisis will get our attention, and we’ll make better choices going forward.” 

This emerging world demands new kinds of leaders: those who are clear about where they are going but very flexible about how to get there. They will need to navigate through disruption while providing the direction necessary to make it tolerable, even motivating, for the people under them. To be convincing, leaders will need to face their own fears and learn from them. 

Cover of Bob Johansen's book, "Full-Spectrum Thinking"

In his new book, FullSpectrum Thinking: How to Escape Boxes in a Post-Categorical Future, Johansen addresses the limitation of what he calls categorical thought: assuming that new experiences will fit into old buckets, labels, and generalizations. While that may be useful in some situations, it is full-spectrum thinking – the ability to consider and assess all the possibilities – that will enable leaders to prepare for disruptions ahead. “A full-spectrum mindset is a great place to start in order to make sense out of ourselves, the world around us, and the future,” Johansen writes. 

Pegs on a board connected by colorful pieces of string

The shift toward a full-spectrum mindset will take effort, but Johansen offers advice for how to rehearse for the future and develop the skills to navigate the high-risk realities ahead. 

Q: Was the impact and scale of this current pandemic predictable? Should we have been better prepared? 

Bob Johansen: Yes, we should have expected this. Global pandemics have been in our forecasts since 2009. Five years ago, Bill Gates was all over this. We just didn’t listen. 

Q: Has this situation gotten enough attention that we will be more prepared in the future? 

Johansen: We’ve certainly seen some impressive corporate responses. It’s amazing what Walmart, for example, has done: hired 200,000 people in the middle of this and become an essential service. We can see similarly impressive things happening in pharma and healthcare. There’s a lot of collaboration going on between companies that are normally competitors. 

Q: You say in this book that the future will be an asymmetrical patchwork of urgency, panic, imbalance, and hope. 

Johansen: The word I find myself using a lot is scramble. Many things that have been stuck will become unstuck – and there will be an unusually high number of unintended consequences. We are going to be working in a future that will be a lot more complicated, a lot less certain, and a lot more dangerous. Enduring leadership qualities like strength, humility, and trust will still be important, but the future will require new literacies to thrive, such as vision, understanding, clarity, and agility. 

Tall building on the corner of a street with a sign that reads "See what's around the corner before you get there"

Q: You came up with the term full-spectrum thinking. How does that work? 

Johansen: Full-spectrum thinking is the ability to see clearly across gradients of possibility while resisting the temptations of certainty – as compared to categorizing new experiences with old categories. 

Our brains are wired to categorize, even when it comes to thinking about the future. It wants to predict what’s next and keep us out of trouble. But in novel situations, such as COVID-19, categories don’t work because you can’t categorize something that no one has seen before. 

Full-spectrum thinking is about recognizing patterns and seeking clarity while resisting premature categorization and false certainty. It has the potential to reveal that commonalities are hidden in plain view. It provides context. It encourages nuance. And it better enables people to make sense out of new opportunities and threats. 

Q: That’s plain to understand intellectually, but clearly harder to do in practice. Will it get any easier? 

Johansen: Yes. A mix of new and better technology tools will enable full-spectrum thinking. Video-gaming–based engagement, Big Data analytics, visualization, blockchain, and machine learning are finally getting practical. They will help us resist the temptation of categorization and false certainty that don’t reveal the future in all its complexity. 

Q: You’ve suggested video games as a tool for simulating uncertainty and chaos.

Johansen: If you don’t have some fear about the future, you’re not paying attention. Fear is not a bad thing. It’s what you do with your fear that can turn bad. Leaders must learn to play through their fear and develop effective, efficient responses. 

That’s essentially what a video game is: an environment in which players can voluntarily engage their fears in the interest of developing their own readiness and resilience. In games, individuals can confront their fears and learn to play through them in a low-risk setting. It’s an immersive learning experience. I believe that gaming – the ability to enter and operate within emotionally laden first-person stories – will evolve into the most powerful learning medium we’ve ever had. 

Group of gamers in front of computers celebrating a big win

Q: How should executives make use of VUCA situations? 

Johansen: VUCA situations have always challenged leaders on a local scale, but not on the global scale that we are experiencing thanks to our interconnected world. Climate disruption, cyberterrorism, and pandemics, as we have now seen, will take place to degrees previously unimaginable. 

Leaders should flip VUCA from a negative to a positive: from volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous to vision, understanding, clarity, and agility. These are the new literacies that I think will enable leaders to navigate the future in positive, practical ways. 

“The future will require new literacies to thrive, such as vision, understanding, clarity, and agility.” 

Bob Johansen

Leaders are going to encounter things they’ve never seen before. If you want to lead in that kind of environment, you must practice. You need safe zones where you can immerse yourself in simulations to figure out how to manage. 

Q: Are you optimistic about our ability to evolve towards more full-spectrum thinking and better anticipate the future? 

Johansen: The big idea that I find resonates with corporate leaders is that the future will reward clarity but punish certainty. In parallel to that, it will reward full-spectrum thinking but punish categorical thinking. 

I’m optimistic that this crisis will cause us to think in a more full-spectrum way and recognize the dangers of certainty. The stakes are high, and we can’t afford to make any more mistakes than necessary.