A version of this article appeared at Inc.com
Recently the editors of Inc. (generally a kindly and helpful bunch) asked their column writers, your correspondent included, if we would apply our communal thinking to a single topic: What will leadership look like in the year 2020?
Now, given that by 2020 I will likely be well into what might politely be called my dotage, and that when I first entered into the world of business I never imagined I’d see the year 2000, let alone 2020 (or that I would be typing this column at 30,000 feet, in full communication with everyone below using only a palm-sized slice of glass and metal), you would be fair in assuming that my thoughts on the matter are unlikely to be, well, cutting-edge. But I’m as game for a bit of crystal-ball-gazing as the next scribbler, and so, in the spirit of insta-punditry, here are my answers to the four questions posed by the wise elves at Inc.:
Q: What will be the biggest challenges facing leaders in 5 years from now?
A: How the heck would I know?
Seriously, how on earth could I (or you, or even that smart, funny iconoclast in your tweet stream) have any clue what leadership challenges we’ll all be facing in five years time?
Sure, I could make up a bunch of stuff, based on reading the runes of the present day and sprinkling it with some pixie dust of fancy-schmancy vocabulary (‘Holistic semi-autonomous democratic self-governance’, anyone?). Doing so might make me look cool, hip and trendy right now, but in five years time I’d simply end up featured on some 3-D infographic calling out the worst of the lame-o so-called prescients of 2015.
Satisfy yourself with this: There will be big changes in the challenges you face as a leader over the next five years, and if you (or anyone else, like me) think you know what they are, you’re already behind the eight ball.
Q: How can leaders help their organizations plan for the changes in store?
A: Given we don’t know what the nature is of the change that our organizations will face in 5 years (see above), the most important challenge for any leader is to do the three things that have always been their key imperatives:
1. Be brave and honest in gathering and interpreting data.
2. Communicate clearly the changes necessary in actions, behaviors and skills dictated by the data, and
3. Hold everyone accountable for making those changes in a ruthlessly constructive manner.
Q: How should leaders equip themselves to lead in the 2020 business environment?
A: Get on top of your time and personal productivity management. The only real change in the role of business leadership over the last 50 years has been the need to efficiently control and effectively consume incoming communications, and that curve isn’t going to slow. In 5 years time, the platform skill needed to even get to practice leadership will be the ability to manage overwhelm.
Q: How will leadership itself change?
A: It won’t. It never has, and it never will. All that changes is the forum we look to to model leadership (war, politics, sports, entertainment, or the current favorite, cause-based organizations).
Apart from dealing with increasing communications through ever-multiplying channels, the art of leadership will be what it always has been: the act of getting a group of two or more people closer to its common goals.
What will change, I believe, is how we celebrate and talk about leadership. We’re seeing a shift away from perpetuating the myth of the in-front leader, to an understanding of the reality, which is that in high-performing organizations leadership happens at all levels – that anyone can commit a not-so-random act of leadership, if only we’ll build an environment that enables them to do so.
So there you have it. In the next five years nothing will change, and everything will change. Just like the last five years.
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