What skills do all leaders need in these volatile times?
“Leaders must understand that we are living in a world marked by uncertainty, volatility and deep transformational changes,” World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab wrote at the start of the year.
As thousands of global leaders descend on the Swiss village of Davos to discuss these very issues, we asked six of them this question: what does it take to lead in these times of turbulence?
In times of uncertainty, a critical skill for responsible leaders is to say “I might be wrong” – and mean it. I work with too many leaders who cling to their convictions with an iron will. As intoxicating as that confidence can be, it’s a huge barrier to making wise decisions and pivoting as circumstances change.
The leaders who fare best at predicting the future are the ones who recognize that the future is unpredictable. By embracing doubt, they stay open to new ideas. As a result, they’re ready to act when headwinds turn into tailwinds. So I have a simple message for leaders: if you want to increase the odds that you’ll be right, accept that you’re probably wrong.
Heightened uncertainty puts a premium on good judgement. And nothing is more fundamental to good judgement than intellectual humility.
Note the adjective. This isn’t self-denigration. Intellectual humility simply means appreciating both the infinite complexity of reality and the fallibility of human beings. It’s invaluable because, taken seriously, three consequences follow.
One, intellectual humility causes the wise leaders to distrust quick-and-easy answers. The intellectually humble always want to learn more and explore different perspectives, in hopes of finding additional bits and pieces of truth.
Two, intellectual humility spurs introspection. Mistakes are inevitable. Only relentless critical examination of one’s own thoughts can catch and correct them.
Three, and perhaps most importantly, intellectual humility dispenses with certainty. Indeed, for the intellectually humble leader, “nothing is certain” is axiomatic. All judgements are matters of probability only, with the goal of this “probabilistic thinking” being to accurately distinguish ever-finer degrees of uncertainty.
Leaders must be able to build organizations that are agile and can routinely innovate. People don’t want to follow a leader to the future – that is yesterday’s model. They want to co-create it.
Innovation is a collective activity, one in which different people – depending on their particular talents – come forward at different times to move the group where it needs to go. Leading innovation is intellectually and emotionally taxing work, much of which takes place behind the scenes. It requires a belief in others’ slices of genius and a sense of generosity to share power, control and credit. Leading innovation is more about being the stage-setter than the performer, not always easy for leaders with star talent themselves.
One key skill that all responsible leaders need to have today is a deep understanding of the key global trends driving change. Three tidal forces are sweeping across our world simultaneously.
The first is the return of Asia and the end of Western domination of history. The second is accelerated globalization creating a small, interdependent, borderless world. The third is explosive change in technology, which is driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution that Klaus Schwab has spoken so eloquently about. Each of these tidal waves must be understood in depth.
That’s the easy part. The hard part is working out how each tidal wave affects the other. This is why it is so difficult to work out the future of US-China relations. Globalization and technology are creating a deep interdependence between them. The shift of power is driving them apart. Hence, it is not enough to watch personalities like Xi Jinping or Donald Trump. We also need to understand the deeper forces driving their behaviour. Any leader who fails to understand this unique complexity of our time is ill-equipped to provide leadership to their society.
The path to leadership is both an inner and outer journey.
The role of the inner journey is to create within the leader a deep sense of their values, a narrative that is unique to them, and the courage to act on their values.
The outer journey connects the leader to the world, to understanding the place of their leadership in this time of extreme change, and to use wisely the power and resources that are at their disposal.