How the Most Successful Leaders Will Thrive in an Exponential World

We live in challenging times. Geopolitical turmoil, local and national social unrest, cycles of deadly natural disasters, cyber hacks, rising distrust of media and tech companies—many recent disruptive events have taken us by surprise.

Nearly two decades ago, military planners coined an acronym to capture the nature of an increasingly unpredictable and dynamic world. They called it VUCA—an environment of nonstop volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

The world today embodies VUCA more so than any era we’ve recently experienced.

Why do so many of us—individually and collectively—fail to imagine, let alone anticipate, the massive and disruptive changes that are unfolding? Driven by fast moving technologies and globalization, the pace of change is accelerating, our brains are struggling to keep up, and surprise, discomfort, and unrest are the result.

This is no anomaly. VUCA isn’t going away. Change promises to speed up, not slow down. To thrive in a world where “change is the only constant,” leaders need to replace old thinking with a new framework.

Exponential change calls for exponential leaders. But what exactly does that mean?

In this article, we’ll explore the four pillars of exponential leadership. These are the critical skills leaders must learn to successfully navigate a rapidly changing world—not just to create strategic advantage for their organizations, but also to help build the kind of inclusive, equitable, positive and abundant future we all want to live in.

Some leaders already excel at some of these skills. An exponential leader strives to master them all, clearly understands how they influence each other, and in practice, models them as an integrated whole much more powerful than its parts.

The Futurist

The first skill of exponential leadership is learning to transform surprise into mindful anticipation. To do this, leaders have to become skilled futurists.

This does not mean simply extrapolating today’s pace of change into the future. It means imagining new possibilities boldly and optimistically—and understanding they are quite likely to arise sooner than expected. Leaders will have to get equally comfortable with what can be known and with exploring what is unknown.

This is not how many leaders currently operate.

Today, leaders typically manage risk with a variety of analytic processes and frameworks that identify and quantify known variables. In most organizations, the future is primarily projected through numerical forecasts and spreadsheets, reinforcing a perspective that the world is an extension of what we know today, and that we can plug in some numeric formula to calculate quantifiable predictions.

The problem, however, is these forecasts rely on understanding current variables and existing trends. We see future events as a new version of past events, presuming the pace of change will move in a straight line. In reality, the line curves upward, and new variables—unforeseen technologies, for example—always enter the equation.

The result? Forecasts fall short. At best, we’re shocked, at worst disrupted.

It’s not that we aren’t capable of imagining new narratives for the future or widening the set of probable futures we consider. It’s mostly that we’ve never been taught how or given permission to do this as part of our “day job.”

As futurists, leaders need to get comfortable asking open-ended questions about unspoken assumptions to see new possibilities. They need to be curious about the future and blend imaginative practices of strategic foresight, futures backcasting, science fiction design and scenario planning into traditional business planning.

The Innovator

In addition to imagining a range of new futures, leaders must also act as innovators, discovering new ideas through creative ideation and rigorous experimentation. These days, great product ideas can come from a single tweet or a surprising customer interaction and be tested with a working prototype in less than 24 hours.

Yet, many businesses still focus primarily on getting existing products to market faster while reducing costs and increasing margins.

The underlying strategic bet is placed on certainty by minimizing variability. And if they are experiencing success, the focus is on defending and expanding what exists rather than exploring new opportunities through ongoing discovery.

What’s often missing is a deep understanding of the customer on the other side of the transaction, much less any ongoing investment in designing and developing new products and services to satisfy emerging customer needs and requirements.

When leaders embrace their role as innovators, they realize they must always be thinking about the customer. They use human-centered processes, such as observation and questioning, to collect insights; they use visual thinking and storytelling skills to share hypotheses and ideas quickly and effectively; and they embrace a growth mindset to test and gather evidence on what they’ve learned.

Rigorous innovators do this continually, iterating over and over to uncover opportunities obscured by the fog of uncertainty.

The Technologist

As technology innovation accelerates, leaders have to understand which technologies will directly impact their industry and which will affect adjacent industries. Increasingly, technology can digitize, manipulate and replace physical products and services, challenging the status quo of many existing companies.

The best way to understand technological change is not to read about it, but to experience it first-hand by learning to code, building or manipulating a simple robot, trying new products and services that go beyond what’s familiar or comfortable, and seeking the resources of innovation and experimentation.

However, understanding technology solely from an engineering or R&D perspective is not enough. Exponential leaders will also have to grapple with the ethical, moral and social implications of the technologies they build their organizations around.

Technology disruption is quickly outpacing existing regulations, laws, and societal norms. There are already on-going tax and labor feuds between industry disruptors such as Airbnb and Uber and the communities they serve.

But those legal battles pale in comparison to the ethical battles we may soon face when workers in large industries such as food or transportation are replaced by autonomous systems. And we’ve hardly begun to explore the implications of a future in which genetic modifications have become significantly more accessible and widespread.

Policy and ethics are not independent of technology, and technology does not operate in a protected silo apart from either. If leaders bet on the massive new revenue potential or cost saving opportunities that technology offers, they must also embrace the societal and moral implications that will inevitably follow.

This will require a whole new set of discussions and decisions in the boardrooms of every corporation, new behaviors and norms in every product development lab, and new ways of educating, rewarding (and even penalizing) tomorrow’s leaders.

The Humanitarian

Exponential leaders use the skills and behaviors of futurist, innovator and technologist to improve the lives of the people they touch, and society as a whole. They aim to do well by doing good—not as a separate set of “corporate social responsibility” activities, but as part of the integrated company mission.

Leading as a humanitarian can mean explicitly building a business using technology to create positive impact. B corporations, for example, are for-profit companies certified to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. It can also mean investing in humane policies and practices that create a positive culture and a meaningful work environment. A workplace that inspires employees and partners to strive toward their full potential.

Increasingly technology can also generate fundamentally new business models and growth opportunities enabling and empowering more new parts of the world to become sustainable and autonomous economic centers of growth.

When Google’s high-altitude balloons connect the most rural and underdeveloped areas to universal high-speed internet, or drones deliver medical supplies after natural disasters, we can start to imagine a world where the ultimate resource technology amplifies is our imagination to believe anything is possible.

Our Future Needs Exponential Leaders

These roles—futurist, innovator, technologist and humanitarian—are interconnected and enhanced when knowledge and insights flow between them. The four pillars are a holistic system of learning to imagine, create, capture and scale hidden value in an increasingly complex and dynamic world.

This is the essence of exponential leadership.

By practicing these new skills, all leaders can improve their capacity to not only anticipate change, but also make proactive choices leading to more positive, productive futures for their organizations, communities and the world.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Lisa Kay Solomon
Lisa Kay Solomon
Lisa Kay Solomon is a well-known thought leader in design innovation with a focus on helping leaders learn how to be more creative, flexible and resilient in the face of constant change. Lisa is the Chair of Transformational Practices and Leadership at Singularity University a global community of smart, passionate, action-oriented leaders who want to use exponential technologies to positively impact the world. She coauthored the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations that Accelerate Change, and more recently, Design a Better Business: New Tools, Skills and Mindset for Strategy and Innovation. Lisa is a frequent keynote speaker on innovation, design thinking and leadership at global conferences and business schools. A passionate educator, Lisa has taught at the revolutionary Design MBA program at California College of the Arts and has developed and led popular classes for Stanford d. School such as Networking By Design and Design With the Brain in Mind. She is also the Executive Producer of the annual Inspired4Schools conference, a design leadership program for educators, and is on the leadership committee for The Nueva School’s Innovative Learning Conference, a biennial gathering for trends related to the future of education.
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