The 3 Skills Leaders Need to Succeed in a Wildly Uncertain Future, According to an Executive Coach 

If the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t enough to convince you that the future is likely to be wild, then take a look at the dozens of wildfires currently reducing large tracts of the American West to cinders. Thanks to the climate crisis, globalization, and advancing technology, the world is growing less predictable and more complex. 

If you’re a leader, how are you supposed to cope with this uncertain future? No expert, no matter how clever, can tell you what surprises exactly are coming (though we should heed those who warn us about risks and brewing crises), but one executive coach says she knows what capacities leaders need to start strengthening to cope with whatever craziness the future is going to throw at us. 

Writing for INSEAD Knowledge recently, executive coach Renita Kalhorn argues that, to deal with increasing levels of ambiguity, complexity, and unpredictability, leaders “can’t simply rely on their proven strengths and do more of what they’re good at. They need to expand their range.” 

In short, doing what got you to where you are now might not be enough to keep you on top. You have to develop some new tricks, like these: 

Oscillating between extremes 

Maybe you’ve always leaned on your EQ and reputation as a people person. Or perhaps you earned your leadership stripes through data-driven analysis. Those skills are invaluable, but in our uncertain future one of them isn’t going to be enough. Leaders who want to succeed will need the capacity to swing between different approaches, depending on the context. 

Kalhorn gives the example of a strategist leading a sustainability initiative at a consumer goods company who starts the project from a position of curiosity, radical openness, and willingness to listen, but later shifts to hard-nosed, data-driven decision making. 

“The same way that a tennis player can’t rely solely on a powerful serve,” Kalhorn explains, “leaders need range so they can choose the best approach, not simply the one they’re most comfortable with. The decisive CEO will have to learn how to ‘not know;’ the CTO how to ‘human.'”

Mindful context switching 

Research shows that context switching — or changing between very different types or tasks or environments — costs considerable amounts of time and attention. In a chaotic and complex future it’s going to be inevitable anyway. 

That means leaders must learn to minimize the disruption of jumping between tasks. Helpfully, there are tricks to minimize the brain-frying effects of context switching, including creating a high-level mental map of what you’re trying to accomplish and how each context fits in, designating time for focused thinking, and even physically changing environments for different types of tasks to signal to your brain it’s time to switch mindsets.  

Slowing down to speed up 

The accelerating pace of change can make it feel like someone is slowly and inexorably turning up the speed on the treadmill of your life. The natural response is to keep running faster, but Kalhorn insists that leaders who win the future will fight that urge, understanding instead that sometimes the way to go faster overall is to slow down now. 

Her example here is Brad Stevenson, CEO of Aligned Insight, who was launching a new diversity and inclusion initiative when he realized large swaths of the company were questioning the fundamental value of the whole exercise. Rather than ram through the program over these objections, Stevenson took the time to get everyone on board and ensure the initiative was more than just window dressing. The implementation took longer, of course, but it actually got the company to its goals faster in the end. 

Things like taking time to create true buy-in for change are smart practices now too, of course, but some leaders may be able to skate along without them. The future won’t be so forgiving. If you want to succeed in the craziness to come, mastering these skills will be essential. 

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