How Leader(ing) Not Leader(ship) Will Define The 21st Century.

Jan 01 2020


“Your playing small does not serve the world.” —Marianne Williamson

This quote has guided my work for decades and became the focus of my consultancy. We are in extraordinary moment in which old systems, approaches, philosophies and increasingly, institutions too, are breaking down, and the new ones—which will likely look very different—are yet to be created. So much is becoming possible; this is the time to step in and step up. No one can sit on the sidelines as a very different world unfolds.

The Liminal Gap

As difficult as it is to envision, the future will look very different from the way things operate currently. The emergence of exponential technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Bio-engineering and so many more are poised to reshape industry, work and society itself. Technology breakthroughs and societal breakdowns are forcing us to radically change what we do and how we do it. I call this undefined space between here and there “The Liminal Gap”. Successfully navigating this unknown space between what exists now and what will be created for the first time ever requires a very different way of thinking and behaving.  

Entering this new era, it’s worth paying attention to the metrics we use to measure our success and reevaluate if the initiatives which drive our economic efforts are pointed in the right direction. Does a focus on GDP help stimulate a healthier future when it leaves out a huge part of what will make that possible - including less consumption, more reuse, and adoption of lower-energy products and services that take better care of the planet?

As we consider ways to address income inequality, are we capturing the value created in unpaid work and community volunteerism?

Is a universal basic income (UBI) a viable option? What about universal basic transportation? Or medical insurance? Or education? Or housing? Importantly, what will incentivize better, healthier economic investments and behavior as we focus on repairing our planet and strengthening the human cloud at the center of the growing digital one?

And here’s a mind-bending thought: will advances in technologies such as 3D printing, machine learning and robotics drive consumer costs down in such a way that we can have a higher quality of living on a lower income? If we can 3D print a house for $7000, have an AI give us a reliable medical diagnosis, share our cars, and grow healthy food faster supported by huge advances in renewable energy, will we need the same income to live a good life? Is “positive degrowth” something worth shooting for?

One Percent In To The First Productivity Revolution (1PR)

Many believe we are just one percent into the economic revolution ahead. New technologies and the breadth of data we will now be able to access will give us an extraordinary ability to solve complex problems and build more resilient structures.

Though this era ahead is currently being spoken about as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are actually moving into an age of “cyber-physical systems,” where products all around us are imbued with mechanisms to capture, control or monitor behaviors to enhance and improve user experiences. Executive chairman of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab describes this new era we’re entering, as “characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.” Being able to collect and understand vastly more data is allowing us to exponentially learn and grow. What’s more, having these cyber-physical systems means we can outsource more to robots and AI, and this capability is yet again dramatically shifting the nature of work. This technology wave won’t just allow us to do things faster or more cheaply, it will change how we create value, exchange goods and services, and coordinate and communicate with one another; even our cultural structures and lifestyles will all continue to look different.

Using the word “industrial” to describe a digital future is part of the outdated mindset we need to change. As we are moving away from a society of manufacturing and consumption to one of innovation and regenerative value exchange, I offer the “First Productivity Revolution” (1PR) as the more accurate description. One that will put us on a much steadier, more inclusive and sustainable path.

Designing the Future We Want

Given the rate of change, most of the practices, approaches, and tactics that have worked in the past are no longer effective.  And critically, the centralized, siloed, hierarchical and extractive structures put in place to reduce risk in the 20th Century are now often the very things creating vulnerability in the 21st Century we are just beginning to navigate and build.

This moment in time represents a huge opportunity to redesign and rebuild structures that serve people better. What if we could make our resources more abundant and much more accessible, inclusive and regenerative? For that to be possible, we must cultivate both the mindset and the capacities that empower much faster and more humane decision-making. 

Consider the food industry for just a minute. The focus of the 20th Century was to produce food cheaply, efficiently, and quickly. Such a mindset led to companies prioritizing production over nutrition, and placing fillers, fats, and sugars into their products. Now companies that were built in the industrial food age are starting to suffer; in 2018, Kraft lost $12 billion. People are realizing these goods may be cheap, but they’re not good for us. Instead, we are seeing the stunning rise of plant-based proteins and milks - with some predicting a 50% reduction in the need for cattle and dairy cows by 2030. That is radical change at such rapid pace. And demonstrates that shifting focus back to the needs of stakeholders is the key that unlocks future growth.

When we put people at the center, and are able to focus our vision on the contribution we can make and the value we can uniquely create, the next steps become clear: we are able to design the systems, products and algorithms that will meet the challenges to come and ensure both business and society thrive - short and long-term. Some leaders have already started.

Encouragingly, in 2019, 181 of the country’s largest CEO’s and companies pledged to put people and the planet ahead of strictly profit making. As Microsoft becomes one of the largest companies in the world, Satya Nadella is an inspiring example of putting caring into action by experimenting with a four-day work week (that increased productivity by 40%) and making sure that contractors receive extended benefits. Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, was quick to recognize that we must move from thinking about CSR (corporate social responsibility) to embrace more of a social license to operate (SLO) that considers all stakeholders including the broader communities in which businesses operate. David Soloman, new CEO of Goldman Sachs, is creating a huge culture shift, introducing gender inclusive pronouns, moving to open office plans, and restricting fossil fuel investments - recently pulling out of financing for oil-drilling in the Arctic. Former Unilever CEO Paul Polman ushered in an entirely new era during his ten years at the company, becoming the face of sustainable capitalism and ditching quarterly reporting in favor of more robust long-term planning to better support sustainability goals. In 2019 Bill Gates spearheaded a Global Commission along with Ban Ki Moon (Former UN Secretary General) to detail how a $1.8 trillion investment in the world’s infrastructure over the next ten years could return as much as $7.1 trillion. The list goes on…

And there is a lot more to do. Caring for others, both short-term and long-term, is not a philanthropic action. It is the driver of 21st-Century success. It harnesses our enormous and potent new capabilities and technologies to ensure we all thrive: That we all have access to dignified housing, healthy food, and on-going education. That our unique skills and curiosities are cultivated and given outlets for expression. That we create technologies that serve society well both now and for generations to come.

Radical solutions are just around the corner. To see them requires an equally radical openness of mind and heart. As a leader, you hold tremendous resources. What do you want to do with them? You have the agency to change the world for the better in so many ways; what do you want to create and contribute … both for today and for those coming along behind you?

Change Your Mindset, Change the World

It sounds small, but the most crucial step you can take toward building a thriving future is to adopt a mindset that allows you to embrace possibility and recognize your agency to act. This one change can have a massive impact on how you orient toward the future and ensure your organization navigates confidently—and even enthusiastically—forward. Specifically, we need to shift our mindsets to:

Wonder (vs. Resist). It is time we approach the future with a sense of wonder and curiosity. We must resist the impulse to deny or dismiss that which challenges our current understandings, approaches or beliefs. “What if…” must become a point on our compass. A constantly changing future requires a constantly learning person—and constantly learning organizations. And learning can’t be an activity relegated to the background of your business operations; you have to prioritize time and energy to learn, as well as incentivize learning within your teams. Heads up, commitment to wonder, learning and curiosity will reconfigure many of the processes built to mitigate risk and drive only for efficiency. Becoming much more robust in the face of constant change requires a different kind of preparedness.

Navigate (vs. Replicate). As we step into what feels like a state of permanent ambiguity, the role of leadership is shifting from one of command and control to one that requires us to sense and respond. It’s no longer enough to replicate old practices to ensure efficient, consistent delivery. In an environment that demands constant innovation and on-demand delivery, we must build the capacity to adapt, to constantly design, test and iterate, and to collaborate.

Contribute (vs. Extract). We’re in an age where it’s no longer sustainable to simply extract resources—whether they’re in the form of time, energy, labor, attention or materials—for the benefit of a small number of investors or shareholders. Future success of business will be dependent on contributing value to a much broader set of stakeholders, from customers, employees and partners to the communities and environments in which we do business. This includes current and future society.

Connected (vs. Alone). Change now happens so rapidly that no single individual or organization will have capacity to build everything alone. We need to learn to leverage the resources and strengths of external partners and internal teams, as well as ensuring harmony within the environments of which we’re a part. To create audacious, meaningful innovations, you’ll need to consider how your company’s technologies and infrastructure support collaboration, and you’ll also have to create conditions that support your team in learning together, working interdependently, and sharing work in progress. Even, on occasion, with your competitors.

Be Audacious (vs. Incremental). Leading a dynamic, adaptive organization means you’ll need to navigate the big-picture transformation of your business at the same time that you manage the day-to-day needs. But focusing only on granular steps is the kiss of death. As all business and civic arenas are being reexamined and redesigned (certainly by those eager to address nagging or even dangerous gaps in delivery), you have to be willing to imagine the biggest, boldest contribution your organization can make to the planet, and orient your teams toward that mission.

Practice Leadering (vs. Leadership). To harness the potential of the moment and ensure a safe and thriving future for ourselves and the generations to come, we simply have to change the way we lead. The role of the leader is no longer to impose rote management structures, but to cultivate and collaborate within ecosystems to sense and respond effectively to dynamic conditions. Leadering is a wholesale shift from believing you “know,” to cultivating the ability to learn—as a human and as an organization. It’s understanding that sustainability in every dimension requires looking longer-term, being purpose-led, designing with empathy and providing value for all stakeholders. We must be able to make decisions faster. We must develop our confidence to navigate, innovate and build meaningful connections…and long-term, caring solutions.  

Change must also walk hand in hand with compassion. As bright as the future can be, many are frightened and worried they will be left behind. By taking better care of both ourselves and others, we can create the psychological safety needed to release each other from fear and encourage all to fully express what we long to create. We have to give ourselves permission to evolve. We’re in an environment where we’ll need to constantly iterate, re-evaluate, and circle back on our ideas as we gather new input or encounter new challenges. I truly believe that by changing our narrative from stories of destruction to ones focused thriving, we can accelerate our progress.

Bottomline, cultivating the mindset we all need to build the future we all want demands we shift from thinking of leadership as a static noun to embracing it as a dynamic verb. We must move from looking for the updated playbook of proven protocols to developing an evolving practice that informs new behaviors through new understandings. We must shift from reading the well-worn map to having confidence being guided by a reliable compass and a motivating north star. We must reorient our organizational structures away from those that manage and control resources from the top, to ones built to sense and deliver more collaboratively and responsively; freshly shaped to harness the potential of a highly digital future, in much more humane and caring ways. We must move faster... while also considering our impact on generations ahead.

Welcome to the First Productivity Revolution. And to Leadering.