The Talent Profile for Thriving Leaders in the Next Future Shock

  • April 8, 2020

For more than a decade, beginning just after 9/11, I’ve been wrestling with the question of leadership profiles that will be required to thrive in what the Army War College calls the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) World. I ended up writing a trilogy of books, all published by BK, that shares the profile I’m convinced will work to help us get ready for the next future shock. 

The trilogy is organized around:

Here, I’ll focus on the mindset of full-spectrum thinking that every leader will need in this distributed, complex future. Full-spectrum thinking is a creative mix of skills, literacies, and mindset. It will unlock clarity while challenging certainty. The future will reward clarity, but punish certainty—fixed certainty is just too brittle to adjust to the constantly changing VUCA World. Leaders must be very clear where they want to go but equally flexible about how they get there. Fortunately, the tools for full-spectrum thinking will get dramatically better just in time over the next decade. Many are certain, but few are clear. That’s about to change.

Move Away from Categories, Transition to Spectrums

Full-spectrum thinking is the ability to seek clarity across gradients of possibility while resisting the temptations of certainty. For example, medical doctors used to label people as “autistic.” Now, they say people are on the spectrum of autism.

The future will reward full-spectrum thinking but punish categorical thinking. Categories coerce and imprison unforeseen possibility. People throw categories at others like nets over wild animals. Categories can kill. Categorizing fosters contempt. Full-spectrum thinking fosters understanding because it seeks to illuminate the endless possibilities and intersections of existence.

In the future, we can expect broader spectrums of business and social value, hierarchy, human-machine symbiosis, diversity, and meaning. Full-spectrum thinking will help us see how we are connected, not just how we are different. Sloppy categorical thinking, which is so common today, will be inexcusable and embarrassing in the future. Recall that full-spectrum thinking will unlock clarity while challenging certainty. The opposite of clarity is not confusion, it is certainty.

This type of thinking will help you escape boxes in a post-categorical future. Foresight is an antidote to certainty. Think future-back: Now, Future, Next.

A cross-generational mix of people using a fresh mix of digital media will first enable—then require—full-spectrum thinking, and it’s already begun. Think big data analytics and visualization, gameful engagement, machine learning, neuroscience, and distributed-authority computing. Next-generation networks and digital natives will enhance our ability to see, understand, and even embody full spectrums of possibility. These tools will allow us to see new patterns with new clarity.

A Full-Spectrum Vision of the Future of Work and Life

Over the next decade, it will get harder and harder to make any money at all selling products alone. Gradually, products will yield to a full spectrum of services, experiences, and organizational and personal transformations—and the profit margins will go up as you move across that spectrum.

The new HR will be HCR: Human-Computing Resources. Ten years from now, we’ll all be cyborgs: human-centered beings who are digitally amplified. Professor Tom Malone uses the term “superminds”—the symbiosis of human creativity, computer efficiency, and technological advancement at scale. The key questions that will be answered over the next decade will be this: what can humans do best? What can computers do best? We’ll need full-spectrum thinking to consider the range of possibilities and opportunities.

What we think of as “human resources” will be infused with digital capabilities with a goal of only automating what should be automated while augmenting everything that should be augmented. In the military, for example, large organizations of specialists have been replaced by agile teams of generalists—most of whom are augmented by computing resources. Ten years from now, most of us will be cyborgs. Along the way, organizations will have to answer the question of what computers can do best and what humans can do best. It is already too late for a “digital strategy.” Now, digital must be central to every strategy.

Expect new spectrums of faith beyond traditional organized religion. Traditional religion is yielding to distributed-authority, collaborative meaning-making in ways that I find very exciting and mind opening. As Leonard Cohen said: “There’s a crack in everything. Look for the cracks. That’s where the light gets through.”

Adapting to a Distributed, Changing World

The rituals and practices of spiritual life are clearly changing, but the spectrum of new experiences will be difficult to categorize. Human-machine symbiosis will add an additional dimension of meaning. How might machines and humans work together to develop new experiences of meaning-making?

In a distributed-authority world, the power of faith will be increasingly distributed. Individuals will feel it, some organizations will grow because of it, and all societies will be influenced by it. In a world where anything that can be distributed will be distributed, many will long for certainty, and there will always be someone to promise it. Expect power shifts, power struggles, and power plays focused around making meaning and meaning as a motivator.

We will all be in a dangerous game of hope.

Institute for the Future (IFTF) is an independent nonprofit think tank in downtown Palo Alto. It does public training programs in the foresight essentials, as well as a range of forecasts on the future of work, global youth skills, and food futures. 

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