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Exploring Leadership Skills for an Uncertain Age

Sunday, April 12, 2015  
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Four Questions for Dr. Bob Johansen, author of Leaders Make the Future

Over the last five years, a growing amount of research has focused on a new set of skills required for leaders who want to navigate our changing world. The term VUCA has gained widespread use to describe the current environment – one that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. School leaders know this story well. Whether it's dealing with changes in the independent school market, the expectations of parents and students, or the myriad opportunities, questions, and risks brought by changing technology, leaders must be able to adapt and innovate.

This summer Keith Evans, Head of The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA, and David Mahler, Head of The Out-of-Door Academy in Sarasota, FL, will address these issues and more at the fifth Institute for Strategic Leadership. Held June 15-17 at Emory Conference Center & Hotel in Atlanta, GA, the event will explore important questions such as: How do independent school leaders think strategically in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) world? How do they build consensus and inspire others to pursue organizational goals? What are the critical skills and capacities required of senior school leaders? In a seminar-style session small enough for important conversations and connections, Evans and Mahler will help participants find answers, based on their experiences and those brought by the group. 

Evans and Mahler draw on decades of experience as independent school leaders as well as new and previous research regarding organizational change. One key influence is the work of Dr. Bob Johansen, author or co-author of eight books, including Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain WorldGet There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Presentand The Reciprocity Advantage: A New Way to Partner for Innovation and GrowthJohansen is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future (IFTF) as he was IFTF’s president from 1996 to 2004 and served on its board until 2010. Today, he invests his time with IFTF sponsors and particularly enjoys leading small workshops with creative teams and rising-star leaders, where he uses foresight from IFTF’s ten-year forecast to kindle insight and action.

In preparation for their next workshop, Evans and Mahler posed four new questions for Johansen:

1.  Which of the ten skills required of future leaders has become even more important since Leaders Make the Future was published?

Johansen: Clarity is an enduring leadership skill that has always been important for leaders, but it has never been so difficult. In a VUCA world, leaders must be very clear about where they are going, but very flexible about how they get there. Even in a VUCA world, it is usually possible to see a clear direction for change. 

2.  Who are the practicing leaders or companies who have mastered or at least gained some ground on developing a new model of leadership that will be successful for the next decade?

Johansen: A.G.Lafley, the CEO of Procter & Gamble, has great clarity. When he first became CEO, for example, he said that half of the new ideas for the company had to come from the outside. He didn't say how, but he kept emphasizing the direction of change that was needed with great clarity and enthusiasm. He also emphasized collaboration as a path to innovation. Procter & Gamble went on to launch the Connect & Develop program, where it crowdsources great ideas and helps entrepreneurs develop their products. This mindset and commitment created an environment of innovation within Procter & Gamble. Read more about Lafley in Forbes.

3.  What critical personal qualities will be required of leaders in chief executive roles in the next decade that may not have been so important in the last decade?

Johansen: Most of today's leaders are great problem solvers, yet the VUCA world is loaded with dilemmas. Dilemmas are problems you can't solve and that won't go away. Still, you have to figure out how to overcome or leverage dilemmas, even if you can't solve them. 

Most of today's leaders are great in person, but their communications skills via social media and other online media vary greatly. Great leaders must be very good at choosing which medium is best suited for each message, and then expressing their leadership through multiple media. These are the leadership skills I call commons creating.

Finally, mutual-benefit partnering skills are becoming increasingly important. This builds from the leadership skill I call commons creating into the strategy I call reciprocity advantage. The best leaders realize that partnering is key to growth and innovation. Shared assets that benefit more than one person or organization will become an increasingly important source of high margins and value over time.

4. How have theories of the VUCA world changed? Are we still dealing with a VUCA world or have the trends shifted?  

Johansen: Trends are patterns of change from which you can extrapolate with confidence. The VUCA world is not about trends; it is about disruptions. I expect that the next decade will be the most turbulent in any of our lifetimes and this will be global scale turbulence. Think VUCA world on steroids. Still, there will be many opportunities to win and many instances of hope. 

Want to explore and grow your leadership skills? Sign up for one of our summer events, including the Institute for Strategic Leadership. 

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Institute for New Heads
June 13-15, 2018 | Peachtree Corners, GA
An informative program preparing administrators for a successful transition to headship.

Institute for Heads
June 19-22, 2018 | Asheville, NC
This energizing and nurturing retreat offers an opportunity for thoughtful dialogue and engagement with colleagues on key issues facing heads of school and their spouses.

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