What should future leaders be learning?

I had a conversation the other day with someone who asked ‘What should our management trainees be learning now, to equip and prepare them for leading 10 years out?’ He thought that if, 10 years ago, we’d been able to predict and teach them about design thinking, systems thinking, working with augmented/artificial intelligence, robots in the workplace, behavioural science, the ethics of technology – then they would be better able to manage the leadership roles they are now in.

It’s a good question, and one, I feel, is very hard to answer as what will be useful now in terms of leading ten years from now involves crystal ball gazing and futurology which do not always yield good yardsticks, as the Lyapunov exponent that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, demonstrates.

But just to test this, I took a look at what The Economist was predicting for 2007.  They asked the question: What will be on the leader’s agenda?  Their answer: climate change, managing shifts in global power, ‘responding to a sense that, in crucial areas, progress that until recently had been taken for granted has stopped or even gone into reverse’, the internet’s transformation of business, the growing connectedness of people, and new tools to search for things.

Their predictions for 2017, ten years later, are very similar, but more pronounced: authoritarians will be ascendant, far-right parties will surge, ‘European politics will be dominated by scaremongering’, more terrorist attacks, financial shocks, and ‘Brexit negotiations will be slow, complicated and cantankerous’.  However, on the more optimistic side, ‘Technology is forging global connections whatever the backlash against migration or trade’

The Economist closes its 2017 predictions with a question: ‘The question is not whether the world will turn back towards openness, but how soon—and how much damage will be done in the meantime.’

What does this mean for future leaders? Should they be preparing for more of the same reversal of progress over the coming ten years, or for a growing return to open-ness?   As we talked this over we asked, what would give them ‘grip’ or enable them to get a grip on, a situation of either further closure and/or more open-ness, and manage it effectively?

Looking at the predictions for 2007 and 2017, it seems to me that rather than develop knowledge of  specific domain content, in order to be able to ‘get a grip’ management trainees should be developing timeless skills useful for pretty much any situation –practicing these through various methods, including scenarios, case studies, action learning, gaming and provocation sessions.

Four timeless skills I think would stand future leaders in good stead, gathered not from rigorous academic research, but from  my organizational experiences over many years, are: diplomacy, kindness, critical thinking, and curiosity.

Diplomacy:  ‘the art of advancing an idea or cause without unnecessarily inflaming passions or unleashing a catastrophe.  It involves an understanding of the many facets of human nature that can undermine agreement and stoke conflict, and a commitment to unpicking these with foresight and grace’.

Kindness  ‘the life lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others’ — is the life we are more inclined to live, and indeed is the one we are often living without letting ourselves know that this is what we are doing. … In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable. But if the pleasures of kindness — like all the greatest human pleasures — are inherently perilous, they are nonetheless some of the most satisfying we possess.   (See a lovely poem on Kindness here).

Critical thinking: ‘that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.’

Curiosity:   the a strong desire to know or learn; having an interest in a person, thing, or experience that leads to making an inquiry.  ‘Being curious can manifest itself in the activity of asking questions, but it can also be a position from which one approaches life.  It keeps us learning, helps in decision making and can be useful in navigating arguments or confrontations. Todd Kashdan, author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, believes that it is from our openness – and not our closedness – that we are able to develop ourselves and others.

How safe do you think it is to predict what leaders will be dealing with in the future – would we be better helping them develop timeless skills (which?) rather than specific domain knowledge?  Let me know.

Image: Reggio Emilia approach

2 thoughts on “What should future leaders be learning?”

  1. Hi Naomi, your timeless skills really resonate with me as they are all human skills which we’ll need to use and develop more, particularly as the use of technology grows. Our human-ness will be our USP! Very interesting, thank you, Lucy

  2. Naomi — lots of new stuff coming out this side of the Pond. The work of the future, will be difficult to predict accurately, but advances in technology will continue and our ability to handle the rapid change may be soon at a breaking point. I would suggest in addition to your four skills, we may add resiliency — the ability to bounce back from disruption. Also it has been suggested that we all have to be life-long learners. Your curiosity skill is required for that. As we age in the developed world and as we live longer, accessibility to knowledge resources will also be a must. Empathy is another one, similar to kindness. Empathy is a key design thinking skill so this should also be nurtured.

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