A Leadership Map for the Future

Predictions for the future can be stimulating and challenging, especially when attempting to make strategic planning decisions. Our rapidly changing global environment presents problems never before encountered. No one knows what will be required of leaders in the future, but some speculation is worthy of our attention.

Experts have not always made accurate predictions:

  • In 1899 the U.S. Commissioner of patents, Charles Duell, declared, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
  • In 1905, President Grover Cleveland prophesied, “Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote.”

New industries are already well on their way to becoming established products and services for the future: micro-robotics, machine translations in real time, urban traffic systems, bio-mimetic materials, machines capable of emotions, inference, and learning, and bioremediation for cleaning up the earth’s environment are a few.

Each of these opportunities is by nature global. No single nation or region is likely to control all the technologies and skills required to turn them into reality.  Any firm wishing to become a leader will have to collaborate with and learn from leading-edge customers, technology providers, and suppliers wherever they are located (Hamel & Prahalad, Competing for the Future, 1994).

How will future leaders be successful?

The question remains – no matter what the product or services – how will business be conducted in the future and what will be required for leaders to be effective?

To be sure, some leadership qualities will always be important: intelligence (emotional as well as cognitive), confidence, ability to articulate and inspire a vision, ability to motivate, unfaltering optimism, perseverance, resilience, and strategic decision making.

Recent company bankruptcies have also shown that leaders need to have moral and ethical values to make difficult and even unpopular decisions that are beneficial to stakeholders in the long term.

The impact of technology

Technological advances are speeding up communications and enabling rapid input from customers, suppliers, employees and all stakeholders, and are also creating new requirements for leaders.

While technological advances can save considerable time and money, here are some of the challenges that they have created:

  1. Learning new technical skills: Leaders at all levels must continually update their skills and remain open to learning how to work with new hardware and software systems. It is no longer sufficient to depend on technical specialists. What was considered basic computer skills in the past are no longer good enough. Leaders must know how to use new devices and programs to their best advantage.
  2. Decision-making on technical issues: Leaders must be able to make decisions about which technological advances have importance for their organizations, which purchases to make and where to allocate resources. Without this capacity to judge the value of technical advances, they risk spending money in the wrong places.
  3. Managing time and information: All persons, but especially leaders, will have to manage their time and information flow more efficiently, in order to be able to respond effectively and in a timely manner to new input from stakeholders. It does no good to have input available if the organization’s system cannot respond in a timely fashion. Time is not the issue here, knowledge systems and management are.
  4. Leading virtually: Greater capacity for instant communications opens possibilities for working with suppliers in foreign countries at lower prices than can be achieved domestically. Leaders must be able to support and coordinate virtual work teams and this requires new skills. Expect to see increased use of virtual conferencing technologies in companies in all industries and professions.
  5. Leading diverse cultures: Working with an expanded global environment brings challenges of communicating effectively with different cultures. Even more so than in the present, leaders will be required to have unique abilities to inspire and motivate others with different perspectives, values, cultures, and religions, as well as multi-generational age groups.
  6. People development: Leaders will have to be adept at bringing out the best in their people, who have more decision-making responsibility with customers and stakeholders in a rapid response environment. Leaders will be required to learn and use effective coaching skills.

Communicating across multi-cultural and multi-generational communities is becoming more important as a competency for leaders in the future, and a lot more of managing and leading will have to be done virtually.

Only a few of the prominent business schools have begun to teach new and future leaders how to manage diverse cultures in a virtual environment. Yet this is a clearly emerging competency.

Even smaller companies will become global and be required to work in a global environment. Expect to see an increase in diversity issues arise in leadership development programs. The use of executive coaches is expected to gain priority as a primary tool for developing diversity competencies for leaders.

Dissolving boundaries

Effective leaders galvanize attention and get people moving forward together. However, organizations are increasingly complex. The past is no longer a map of how to do business in the future.

Leaders must understand the different legal, political, religious, gender and generational perspectives in different regions and countries. How do their organization’s products and services impact the people in the areas where they are doing business? Are the organization’s employees and executives able to respond to differing needs in a flexible and rapid manner? Can leaders manage the tension that is inherent in multi-cultural environments?

For many organizations that are having difficulty managing cultural diversity within their own domestic offices, it will be even more challenging to meet global demands.

Alliances, partnerships, mergers, and outsourcing have all changed the way we do business. Leaders who are adept at building relationships and leveraging partnerships will have a competitive advantage for the future. The ability to guide diverse groups to consensus by focusing on common purpose and core values will be a highly prized competency.

It is important to remember that leadership is an emergent quality that is produced by the acts of many people in complex systems. The corporate culture must recognize and accept the need for leaders to get help. Leaders cannot walk on water or leap tall buildings, no matter how strong they appear to be. Mentors and coaches are necessary for the continuing development of leadership strengths and will be even more so in the future.

Taking Action

As always, I encourage anyone who aspires to enhance their leadership skills to demonstrate the traits and activities associated with being a “Lifelong Learner.” This means that you should have an insatiable hunger for acquiring knowledge and wisdom from leaders in any industry or profession and from all eras, past and present!

Start with finding a role model (you can have more than one!) that has achieved what you aspire to as a leader. Then, find yourself a mentor who will spend time with you and guide you along your leadership journey. Next, put yourself in situations where you will receive the very best leadership training and coaching available.

-Mike Ettore


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