"Leading In A Fractured World": Opening Keynote At The Virginia Military Institute.

Sep 18 2019

Photo credit: Kelly Nye - Virginia Military Institute

Photo credit: Kelly Nye - Virginia Military Institute

I’m often asked how we prepare our youth for a constantly changing, ambiguous future, in which so much of the work they will do and the technologies they will work with haven’t even been conceived yet? Last week I was given the opportunity to share my thoughts directly with 1700 cadets, as I gave the opening convocation address at VMI (Virginia Military Institute). For those asking the same questions, here’s what I said to them...

Although I’m invited to give talks to business and technology leaders trying to transform their work and who have plenty of resources and power to improve current + future well-being, I can honestly say, none have as much potential as each of you. It’s why my favorite way to invest time and energy is to encourage students to explore what the future needs and expects… from you. And to hopefully inspire you to consider what you are each in a unique position to contribute and create… for the future.

And I’ll add, that not only do I come to you today as an advocate for a safe, thriving and inclusive world, but also as a “futurist mom” of three young adults almost exactly your age — sons 22 + 19, and a daughter 16 — all of whom are in the midst of working out not just what kind of future they want to be a part of, but where and how they can actively build, shape and design it.

Because that is the real work ahead.

I’m inspired by this year’s academic theme: ‘Leading in a Fractured World’, because it calls us all into action, doesn’t it? There can be no sitting on the side-lines now as things take new shape.

We/you are in a 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.

As such, we sit in what I describe as “the Liminal Gap” – this undefined space between here and there. Between the old and the new. Between what exists now and what will be created for the first time ever.

For some who really like security, that news is unsettling. They are waiting nervously for someone to tell them what to do and how to do it. They’re frustrated the rules are changing and don’t feel empowered enough to do anything. BUT, for the rest of us — especially for those who’ve chosen to take on one of the most rigorous educations around and are literally being trained + conditioned for Action — this, I hope, is really exciting news! We get to create what has never existed before and find new ways to fix old, hard problems, in ways that add huge value to people’s lives.

Let me give you some examples:

1) My current hometown of Austin, TX have found a way to 3D print a really great looking, solid little one bedroom house in 27 hours for about $7000. Given the average home in the US costs $226,800 and takes around 7 months to build, that is a pretty radical innovation! They are partnering with another organization to provide safe homes and more dignity to those experiencing homelessness around the world, particularly in rural, poverty entrenched communities in Central America. Can you see the link that this kind of totally game-changing thinking could have on Border security? US political rhetoric? World peace??

2) My buddies at Microsoft just launched Hololens Mixed Reality software + hardware that allows teams all over the world to collaborate in real time to design something as intricate as a new airplane wing, and also be able to give a Holographic keynote talk on a stage in any language. Imagine the barriers this eliminates? And the global brain power it opens up!

3) Many companies and researchers are using Artificial Intelligence and a domain of machine learning called Natural Language Processing to help identify those experiencing depression or even contemplating suicide by analyzing how you use pronouns or even certain emoji.

And a large consulting company named McKinsey just identified over 160 ways all forms of AI are being applied for social good: from reading x-rays faster and less expensively, to growing food in vertical farms which can produce 390x more crops per square foot with 95% less water. Imagine the impact this has on global well-being as access to medical diagnosis + care and fresh foods become locally available, and much more affordable.

4) I’m guessing maybe some of you have heard of Blockchain and may have even bought some cryptocurrency as investment, or just to see how it works? Aside from all the technical language about “immutable ledgers”, I am super excited about the work some very close friends are doing to develop an alternative called Holochain, because it will allow us all to hold on to our own data, and see and exchange value in smaller, more resilient communities of our choosing, in less expensive, infinitely scalable ways. An Australian company is using it to build a distributed energy grid. By putting the human at the center of an exchange — vs an application — we have the potential to weave a more human, safe, respectful and completely different internet - and more resilient world. It is one of the innovations on the horizon I am most inspired and encouraged by.

5) Also in Austin, the Army has opened a Futures Command Center in the same building as the city’s key technology start-ups in order to build relationships with civilians designing solutions using AI, VR, 3D printing and more. Its grown from a 12 person “advance team” a year or two ago to now over 24,000 people in over 15 countries, capping off the Army's “largest reorganization effort in more than 40 years”. The center is focused on six modernization priorities: long-range precision fires, next-generation combat vehicles, future vertical lift, network, air and missile defense, and Soldier lethality, all of which have been allocated $30 billion over the next five years. Imagine how differently you will carry out your tasks with these kinds of advances? What skills and mindsets will be necessary?

I could literally go on for hours describing one cool new advance after another in Robotics, BioScience, Nanotechology, Wearables and more!.... But all these huge technological leaps and bounds also come with an equally tremendous responsibility.


While we have a digital cloud in which we can store, extract and exchange data in ways that are revolutionizing every single industry, we must also consider what I call “The Human Cloud”, to pay better attention to the social structures that will hold us safely in this future, and how these must also radically advance and shift to ensure we address huge growing issues, such as:

•     loneliness and anxiety (across all age groups)

•     violence (in our schools, our homes, in our neighborhoods and across the world),

•     income/health/education inequality (again, both here and around the world)

•     dire environmental and ecological damage

•     the ability to create/fake anything or anyone… further dividing (vs uniting) countries, families and friends.

•   AND the need to consider issues of privacy and inclusion with each new tool or approach we build.

SO, my curious new friends…. As I paint the picture of what is currently under construction, are you wondering what this means for you and your future? Are you imagining:

• What the world of work — inside and out of the military — will look like?

• What kinds of totally new “jobs” (or better yet “roles”) will be created? And which will be augmented or replaced by more efficient machines?

• Are you thinking about which technologies you want to learn more about?

• Are you wondering what kinds of new social and organizational structures will need to be conceived, debated and boldly implemented as we ensure each person is trained, supported and included in this new world?  

• Do you appreciate the need to question the ethics of what we see around us? To consider the social and environmental implications of every single move we make?

This is literally how I spend every day. As such, people always ask me what we can do to prepare for such a fast moving, very dynamic, and continuously ambiguous + unfolding future? For me, the answer isn’t a list of skills like “coding”, or resume builders like “community service” (though both of these are swell to do).

Instead it’s a short but potent list of four capacities I believe we must all actively cultivate to keep ourselves relevant and informed as we’re all called to shape a thriving society:


1) The first is INSATIABLE CURIOSITY. This is by far the number one thing every single leader and innovator on the planet is advocating for, because a world that is in constant creation is a world that requires constant learning. And not just from your textbooks or class assignments, but from everything around you; the videos you watch, the books you choose to read and the podcasts you select. It’s from the folks you seek out and the kinds of really interesting questions you ask. It’s keeping your antennae up and wondering “what does this mean?”. 


A highly successful Hollywood producer whose films have generated more than $13B, recently wrote a book called A Curious Mind, all about how he committed to taking someone outside of his industry to lunch, every 2 weeks, for 22 years!! No one told him to do that, yet think about the things he’s learned, the connections his brain automatically makes and the “informed intuition” he’s cultivated that allow him to quickly recognize a huge new opportunity (or threat) faster than others!

The great news is that: a) It has never been a better time to be curious, because you can learn about, connect to, and question nearly anything these days. And b) your curiosity, like a thumbprint, is uniquely yours. I was at a big TED conference one year, listening to a scientist go on and on about how dolphins communicate; she had spent 25 years studying this! And I thought, wow – that’s cool but not at all what I care about. Which then made me wonder: what is it that I am uniquely and passionately curious about? And how does that add value to the world too? The point is, spending time in this kind of open-ended Wonder is some of the most useful time you can invest in yourself and our future.

 2) The second is AGENCY. By that, I mean the sense of confidence and responsibility you have to take action. To an array of future officers and business/societal leaders that may seem like a duh, but it’s amazing how many folks wait for others to tell them what to do. Or look to others to take care of an issue. I was alarmed by this growing tendency, so as my kids were growing up, we had a little sign made and put in the kitchen as reminder each day to each of us to “solve the problem yourself”. My husband and I were there for any support our kids needed– from late night runs for poster board to math help – but it was my children’s job to take responsibility, take action and advocate for any support they needed. 

This capacity is what we all must cultivate as we move into a future of what I’ve heard the CEO of YouTube, Susan Wojcicki describe as FIO’s: Figure It Out jobs. As candidates confess to her that they have never done this before, she reassures them no one has. This is all new territory and we have to have the confidence to “figure it out”. You cultivate this by applying your curiosity and trying, sometimes “failing” and learning. Agency = trusting yourself, knowing you have something valuable to add, and then doing it.

3) Third up, is EMPATHY. It is critical we are able to see things from another’s POV. Study upon study is confirming the need for “social perceptiveness” or social intelligence — basically being able to read how another feels — as a critical leadership skill. I just completed an online MIT course on Machine Learning and Business and the final segment hammered home this point. It also emphasized the need for Collective Intelligence and collaboration, which works best when teams are both diverse in make-up and each person is invited to contribute equally.

What does that really look like? Well imagine this scene for a moment:

You’re at the airport and you see a pregnant mom, traveling solo with a toddler who was having a tough afternoon and was running around the airport. In a moment of exhaustion and exasperation at being unable to calm him, the young mom simply sank down and started weeping. Witnessing this, spontaneously 6 women who don’t know each other, move out of whatever line or seat they were in and gently move toward and encircle the mom. They get low; one starts singing Itsy Bitsy Spider, one pulls out a toy, another a snack — because as you may remember, many moms have magic bags — and the whole situation de-escalates. The toddler comes and sits calmly on the mother’s lap, she and her son take a deep breath, and in a few minutes, they get up and quietly board their flight. The other women simply all go back to their own seats or places in line. Mission accomplished.

No one told them what to do or how to do it. They didn’t ask for permission. They simply sensed they could help and showed up, contributed what they could to address the situation, organically collaborating together. And when it was done it was done, there was no on-going experience or relationships needed; no awards or promotions or FB groups or need for more. It was complete. This is Empathy + Agency in action – and it's also a signal to the future of work.

I have shared this story all around the world and men always remember it. Interestingly, Empathy is a skill most often attributed to women. But I think believing that women are better at this is the kind of social conditioning a fracturing world is finding hugely outdated. Empathy is absolutely a capacity you ALL have – and that the Future needs. It drives smart, human-centered design. It keeps teams engaged, and it fuels innovation - like recognizing that building a playground or installing safer lighting in a violent neighborhood can be more effective at promoting peace than sending in a helicopter (a true public policy story, btw). Empathy + Compassion are skills I sincerely hope you feel increasingly encouraged — by your professors and each other — to demonstrate as YOU conceive, shape and design new solutions. And as you take care of each other.

4) The fourth “capacity of the future” is GRIT. The ability to persevere in the face of difficulty or rejection. Clearly you all have this one nailed! But as a group of high achievers, you might really appreciate my friend Jia Jiang’s talk on the 100 Days of Rejection which he intentionally set out to experience! In short, he was a 30-yr old budding entrepreneur with a young family and very high expectations of himself, who hit a typical for start-up founders (but for him, devastating) hurdle when his new company didn't receive the first investment he was counting on. Jia reeled from that – literally curling up in a mild depression for a few weeks and ready to quit… when he then realized the key to success was the ability not to avoid set-back, but to survive it (and better yet, thrive from it!). He went on a mission to build his resilience by asking for 100 crazy things, just so he could become comfortable hearing “no”; from asking a stranger for $100, to knocking on a stranger’s door and asking to plant a flower in their backyard. This became a video blog, a book and a TED talk watched over 5M times. And here’s the key – no matter how hard you’ve trained, this kind of setback is gonna happen to you, just as it does to all of us.

Next week I’ll be interviewing Michael Phelps, THE most decorated Olympian ever (in front to 500 execs from many of the biggest companies in the country, not only about his wins and competitive mindset, but also about the year he hit the wall, got a DUI, didn’t excel in the Athens Olympics, faced down a scary suicidal moment — and climbed out by asking for help— in order to then go on and break all records in Beijing the next time around. You all know GRIT. We often describe it as Resilience or Perseverance, and it’s a big part of what attracted you to VMI I imagine. So pass it on (and remember... sometimes courage is to seek help).

That is usually where my list ends: CURIOSITY, EMPATHY, AGENCY, and GRIT. But lately I’ve been compelled to add a fifth one:

5) INTEGRITY. It's what we lean on and how we show up in a moment of ethical ambiguity, which in this increasingly complex and fracturing world we will all encounter more and more! It’s what my brilliant friend Jacqueline Novogratz who has built one of the leading organizations to end world poverty, Acumen, describes as “moral imagination”. Several years ago her global organization had to take a stand on bribery. Seems something simple enough to stand up against, right? But what if the only way to build a maternal health center that will dramatically save the lives of mothers and new-borns in an area of huge social conflict is to bribe a war lord? Or corrupt government official? Is the answer Yes… or No?

Though as the amount of data collected allows us to know so much more, and be much more precise in our actions, the list of questions and moral ambiguity will continue to rise. For example, should a major tech company use its deep learning AI technology for offensive military weaponry (many employees at Google said no, and walked out. So Google dropped out. Last I heard, Amazon however did not). Should Microsoft use their facial recognition technology to support ICE raids or identify Hong Kong protestors? What are the ethical implications on privacy if we encourage employees to insert a small sensor in their hands to make it easier to unlock doors + buy Cokes from machines, as is currently happening both Sweden, and Wisconsin? And what if leaders in China believe in the use of AI — or neural chips implanted in our brains, even — in ways we find hugely intrusive, but that give them a competitive advantage? Should (will?) we change our stance?

I’m guided by the fact that TRUST is increasingly becoming the most important thing a person, an organization, an industry, and even a nation must cultivate. And saying “well, we think it’s a bad idea but if our competitors will do it, so will we” is a terrible reason to sell out your highly valuable Integrity. And honestly, can lead to some devastating, unintended consequences.

So… fire up that Curiosity and read about how leaders have navigated this moral ambiguity in the past; from Martin Luther King to Ghandi. Consider what George Washington and General George C. Marshall each demonstrated in their balance of humility, empathy, strength and vision.

And I’ll add, please use your Agency to raise a key question, even if you are the only person with your perspective or background in the room. Be tenacious in fighting for the rights and inclusion of those who cannot advocate for themselves.

Yes, the world is fracturing. And while that can feel daunting for sure, as many of the structures and approaches we’ve become conditioned to are outdated and not holding us all that well, I believe it is also hugely exciting, 

Breakdowns create opportunities for huge Breakthroughs… and as I look around at you all — with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and curiosities, so well-trained by these experienced and open-minded faculty — you, who will be able to show the rest of us how to navigate this dynamic new world with wonder, compassion, confidence, tenacity, ingenuity, and discipline, I feel even more optimistic about the future.

I invite you to take a deep breath as you absorb this quick peek into what the future holds for – and needs from… you.

My wish is that you don’t just receive all this info as yet another lecture; instead consider it an invitation to make this way of thinking + doing a practice. Start this new year off by making my insights uniquely useful to you [Rats included] by finding your own stories and examples of Curiosity, Agency, Empathy, Grit and Integrity. Share them with each other. Feel free to email them to me. Or share in our comments - I'd love to hear them too!

I wish you an extraordinary year, and a very bright future. I’ll be cheering you on! Please take good care of yourself and each other. And for all you are already contributing to this fast-moving and fracturing world, I offer a very deep… THANK YOU!