A tsunami is coming – and it will fundamentally challenge the way we currently do business.
Senior executives may disagree on the form this tsunami will take. For some, it will be primarily technological in nature, as automation and artificial intelligence shape the future of jobs. Others argue it will be social and societal, as angry public opinions shape electoral outcomes and drive policy changes. Others, still, contend this tsunami is environmental, as it redefines the constraints businesses face when it comes to managing resources and supply chains.
But senior executives concur on one thing: this coming wave will be transformative. And if history is a guide to the future, there will be winners and losers.
These executives will need to reinvent their business environment and their toolboxes in order to surf the wave, avoid being swept under by this onrushing tsunami, and strive for impact in this complex global landscape.
How can they achieve this? In my 2019 book, Architects of Change, I argue that impactful leaders need four fundamental qualities to make a difference in a turbulent business environment. These are:
1) Analysis and Empathy
We live in one of the most ideological and tribal periods in history. As boundary between opinion and factual analysis becomes fuzzier, public debates polarize along political and social lines. We see evidence of this in the United States, with the election of an unlikely candidate, Donald Trump, or in the United Kingdom, with the debate over Brexit that has divided the whole country. Political instability is not the monopoly of a few, weaker states, but the very nature of the global system. All of this leaves very little room for the evidence-based approaches that would let leaders anchor their strategies in reality rather than in wishful thinking.
In order to be truly impactful, leaders need to understand the setting they are operating in, so as to better formulate the challenge they are looking to tackle. Unless senior executives adopt an analytical, facts first, approach, they cannot measure the transformation they and their organization must undergo to remain relevant in tomorrow’s landscape. (This is what music labels failed to do for instance when they did not respond to the digital revolution, letting Apple capitalize on this value vacancy to transform the sector.)
This is why impactful leaders usually display strong degrees of empathy. In this complex landscape, involving such a wide range of stakeholders and developing the ability to see the world through the eyes of others can help decision makers fully grasp the true complexity of reality.
2) Flexibility and Anticipation
Trying to predict the future is a fool’s errand. We know from history and research that humans are bad at it. Remember when The Economist dubbed Africa “the hopeless continent” in 2000 only to call it the rising continent in 2011 and the aspiring continent two years later.
Rather than predicting or forecasting, impactful leaders anticipate the future by being mindful of ranges of possibilities. In order to operate in this complex business environment, they can rely on a limited set of mutually exclusive scenarios which, taken together, reasonably capture the contours of the future that we can reasonably expect. The dynamics of these scenarios help leaders determine whether their strategy will help them remain relevant tomorrow, no matter which scenario actually materializes.
The oil major Shell is known for the scenarios it has been developing over the years, flagging significant developments such as the rise of OPEC, the development of renewables and the challenges related to climate change. These scenarios have helped industry actors remain mindful of the necessary shifts they would need to undertake to remain in the game tomorrow.
This explains why impactful leaders are flexible. They are able to adapt and readjust to ever-changing forces shaping the business environment and the future by reallocating physical resources and by rethinking their strategy as they collect additional data about the future.
3) Resilience and Imagination
Flexibility is never infinite. Like a rubber band, a leader may be able to withstand outside tensions and to adapt accordingly. However, that ability may not last in time if tensions are too repetitive, or if unforeseen and unprecedented events radically change the business environment in a way that makes previous approaches obsolete.
The challenge, in those cases, is not about anticipation – which is meaningless when we have entered uncharted waters. Instead, it is about showing enough resilience and imagination to reinvent tomorrow’s models. In fact, the story of capitalism isn’t just about marginal and incremental changes in products, services and systems – like the upgrade of a smartphone. It’s also often about major overhauls and transformations of ecosystems that redefine the user experience – like the development of a radically new product or service that renders yesterday’s devices obsolete.
In fact, resilient leaders embrace radical ruptures and redesigns of business models that once seemed unshakable. There is no evidence to suggest the future will be any different, making resilience and imagination key features of an impactful leader.
Being analytical, flexible and resilient helps leaders develop their ability to formulate questions and defy consensus and conventional wisdom, to challenge yesterday’s rules, interpretations and standards, and to disrupt past patterns, approaches and practices. All these elements are at the heart of creativity that transform companies.
Take the example of Uber. Like its fellow ride-hailing companies today, its business model is quite straightforward. Yet, like its rivals, Uber is also heavily investing in algorithms that could make mobility solutions increasingly efficient with the advent of driverless cars and smart cities, and that could be of interest to city regulators – making today’s tensions moot.
Ultimately, having an impact can never only be about marginal adjustments – as significant and empowering as they may be. It must also be about exploring the unknown and bringing about fundamental changes that very few might have bet on a priori.