How the Most Successful Leaders Will Thrive in an Exponential World

We live in challenging times. Geopolitical turmoil, local and national social unrest, cycles of deadly natural disasters, cyber hacks, rising distrust of media and tech companies—many recent disruptive events have taken us by surprise. Therefore we need to understand how the most successful leaders will thrive in an exponential world.

Nearly two decades ago, military planners coined an acronym to capture the nature of an increasingly unpredictable and dynamic world. They called it VUCA—an environment of nonstop volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

The world today embodies VUCA more so than any era we’ve recently experienced.

VUCA isn’t going away. Change promises to speed up, not slow down. To thrive in a world where “change is the only constant,” leaders need to replace old thinking with a new framework.

Exponential change calls for exponential leaders. But what exactly does that mean?

In this article, we’ll explore the four pillars of exponential leadership. These are the critical skills leaders must learn to successfully navigate a rapidly changing world—not just to create strategic advantage for their organizations, but also to help build the kind of inclusive, equitable, positive and abundant future we all want to live in.

An exponential leader strives to master them all, clearly understands how they influence each other, and in practice, models them as an integrated whole much more powerful than its parts.

The Futurist

The first skill of exponential leadership is learning to transform surprise into mindful anticipation. To do this, leaders have to become skilled futurists.

This does not mean simply extrapolating today’s pace of change into the future. It means imagining new possibilities boldly and optimistically—and understanding they are quite likely to arise sooner than expected. Leaders will have to get equally comfortable with what can be known and with exploring what is unknown.

In most organizations, the future is primarily projected through numerical forecasts and spreadsheets, reinforcing a perspective that the world is an extension of what we know today, and that we can plug in some numeric formula to calculate quantifiable predictions.

The problem, however, is these forecasts rely on understanding current variables and existing trends. We see future events as a new version of past events, presuming the pace of change will move in a straight line. In reality, the line curves upward, and new variables—unforeseen technologies, for example—always enter the equation.

The result? Forecasts fall short. At best, we’re shocked, at worst disrupted.

As futurists, leaders need to get comfortable asking open-ended questions about unspoken assumptions to see new possibilities. They need to be curious about the future and blend imaginative practices of strategic foresight, futures backcasting, science fiction design and scenario planning into traditional business planning.

The Innovator

In addition to imagining a range of new futures, leaders must also act as innovators, discovering new ideas through creative ideation and rigorous experimentation. These days, great product ideas can come from a single tweet or a surprising customer interaction and be tested with a working prototype in less than 24 hours.

Yet, many businesses still focus primarily on getting existing products to market faster while reducing costs and increasing margins.

What’s often missing is a deep understanding of the customer on the other side of the transaction, much less any ongoing investment in designing and developing new products and services to satisfy emerging customer needs and requirements.

When leaders embrace their role as innovators, they realize they must always be thinking about the customer. They use human-centered processes, such as observation and questioning, to collect insights; they use visual thinking and storytelling skills to share hypotheses and ideas quickly and effectively; and they embrace a growth mindset to test and gather evidence on what they’ve learned.

Rigorous innovators do this continually, iterating over and over to uncover opportunities obscured by the fog of uncertainty.

The Technologist

As technology innovation accelerates, leaders have to understand which technologies will directly impact their industry and which will affect adjacent industries. Increasingly, technology can digitize, manipulate and replace physical products and services, challenging the status quo of many existing companies.

The best way to understand technological change is not to read about it, but to experience it first-hand by learning to code, building or manipulating a simple robot, trying new products and services that go beyond what’s familiar or comfortable, and seeking the resources of innovation and experimentation.

Exponential leaders will also have to grapple with the ethical, moral and social implications of the technologies they build their organizations around.

Policy and ethics are not independent of technology, and technology does not operate in a protected silo apart from either. If leaders bet on the massive new revenue potential or cost saving opportunities that technology offers, they must also embrace the societal and moral implications that will inevitably follow.

This will require a whole new set of discussions and decisions in the boardrooms of every corporation, new behaviors and norms in every product development lab, and new ways of educating, rewarding (and even penalizing) tomorrow’s leaders.

The Humanitarian

Exponential leaders use the skills and behaviors of futurist, innovator and technologist to improve the lives of the people they touch, and society as a whole. They aim to do well by doing good as part of the integrated company mission.

Leading as a humanitarian can mean explicitly building a business using technology to create positive impact. B corporations, for example, are for-profit companies certified to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. It can also mean investing in humane policies and practices that create a positive culture and a meaningful work environment. A workplace that inspires employees and partners to strive toward their full potential.

Our Future Needs Exponential Leaders

These roles—futurist, innovator, technologist and humanitarian—are interconnected and enhanced when knowledge and insights flow between them. The four pillars are a holistic system of learning to imagine, create, capture and scale hidden value in an increasingly complex and dynamic world.

This is the essence of exponential leadership.


You want to take a more detailed look at leaders as futurists, innovaters, technologists and humanitarian? Follow the link below:


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