Leadership and the Future

Thinking about this this morning…these creative ideas from author Bob Johansen really inspire me.   

I like the start of them…but I’m the process of doing some gentle editing based on my social work sensibilities.   I’d love to hear what folks in my social work community think of these and how they might enhance them…? Hive mind!  More to come as this project evolves!!  


Leaders Make the Future Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World
Bob Johansen


1. Maker Instinct. Ability to exploit your inner drive to build and grow things, as well as connect with others in the making. Leaders need this basic skill to make and remake organizations.

2. Clarity. Ability to see through messes and contradictions to a future that others cannot yet see. Leaders must be clear about what they are making but flexible about how it gets made.

3. Dilemma Flipping. Ability to turn dilemmas – which, unlike problems, cannot be solved into advantages and opportunities.

4. Bio-Empathy. Ability to see things from nature’s point of view, to understand, respect, and learn from its patterns. Nature has it’s own clarity, if only we humans can understand and engage with it.

5. Constructive De-Polarizing. Ability to calm tense situations where differences dominate and communication has broken down – and bring people from divergent cultures toward positive engagement.

6. Quiet Transparency. Ability to be open and authentic about what matters – without being overly self-promoting. If you advertise yourself, you will become a big target.

7. Immersive Learning Ability. Ability to immerse yourself in unfamiliar environment, to learn from them in a first-person way.

8. Rapid Prototyping. Ability to create quick early versions of innovations with the expectation that later success will require early failures. Leaders will need to learn from early setbacks and learn to fail in interesting ways.

9. Smart-Mob Organizing. Ability to create, engage with, and nurture purposeful business or social change networks through intelligent use of electronic media and in-person communication.

10. Commons Creating. Ability to seed, nurture, and grow shared assets that can benefit all players – and allow competition at a higher level. This is the most important future leadership skill and it grows from all the others.
The ability to flip from the frightening VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) to a hopeful VUCA (vision, understanding, clarity and agility) will be the ultimate dilemma for leaders in the future.

Collecting Definitions of Strategic Foresight – the Core of Futures Work

Strategic foresight is a decades-old discipline that allows us to create functional views of alternative futures and possibilities (Salvatico & Spencer, 2017, p.1)

Foresight competency models include six basic progressive and interrelated sets of intellectual tasks:   framing, scanning, futuring, visioning, designing, and adapting (Hines, Gary, Daheim, & van der Laan, 2017).

Ultimately, the power of foresight lies not in its tools and methods, but in its ability to alter perspectives.  For this reason, strategic foresight is not just useful within strategic planning, but it also provides a new lens through which to reframe all of our outdated, Industrial Age processes that are no longer effective in our VUCA environment (Salvatico & Spencer, 2017, p. 2).

Foresight is a systematic, participatory, future-intelligence-gathering and medium-to long-term vision-building process aimed at present day decisions and mobilizing joint actions. Foresight arises from a convergence of trends underlying recent developments in the fields of ‘policy analysis’, ‘strategic planning’ and ‘future studies’. It brings together key agents of change and various sources of knowledge in order to develop strategic visions and anticipatory intelligence.    (European Commission Research Directorate General: A Practical Guide to Regional Foresight (FOREN), 2001).

The future is not just something that happens to us but something we create every day with the decisions we make (Savatico & Spencer, 2017, p.4).

Strategic foresight calls for a systematic analysis of identifying driving forces of change before developing policies and plans. These efforts are aimed at finding solutions and policy responses that are likely to bring positive outcomes. Hence,
these activities enable better preparedness, because they generate explicit, contestable and flexible sense of the future.   By doing so, old and obsolete imagery of the future (that organizations sometimes hold on to) can be refreshed. New imagery of the future makes it possible to reveal and test assumptions of our understanding of the world. Moreover, insight about the meaning of possible futures also enables the organization to capitalize on opportunities, particularly ones that are in the long-term future that few people are aware of.  New…strategies can emerge from understanding these opportunities (Duijine & Bishop, 2018). 

Strategic foresight, and more specifically, scenario planning, act as an immune system within our organization, allowing us to create multifaceted strategies that are effective no matter which future emerges (Savatico & Spencer, 2017, p. 4).  

Foresight: Acting wisely in the present, with conscious intent to shape a deeply desirable future. This intention requires us to learn to act in light of explicit and adequate anticipations of the full range of ways one’s future context and its implications may develop. Such anticipations must be tested reflexively and even . meta-reflexively.    Strategic: Having to do with establishing, reinforcing or changing the fundamental trajectory of a person or group into and through the future.  Strategic Foresight: Acting with foresight (see above), paying particular attention to trajectory-altering events, forces, threats, opportunities and commitments.  Strategic foresight informs and provides a context for management/policy, just as management/policy provides a context for operations/administration. Strategic foresight is the applied art/science of the pure art/science of futures research (also called futures studies). Strategic foresight is focussed on one’s context. Its purpose is to ensure the continuing relevance of the person/organization in question.   (Nelson & Forsight Canada, 2015).  

Futures in Social Work Presentation at the November 2018 NADD (National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work) Meeting

Here’s my presentation from the recent NADD meeting providing a primer on futures thinking and its possible relationship with social work practice, research and education.   Enjoy!  

Three Questions to Start a Dialogue on Social Work and “Futures” Thinking

When we think about futures work as social workers – our code of ethics, our commitment to equity, our strengths approach – all matter and greatly accelerate progress in the futures space.  But – futures work has the potential to expand and energize our efforts as it introduces some new ideas in the way we conceptualize and actualize our work.   As the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently shared at the Institute for the Futures 50th Anniversary Conference in Palo Alto – futures work allows us the opportunity to “update our intellectual software” for the 21st century and all its rapidly complicating dynamics.

Now about those questions – let’s dive in.

  • Can we do a better job of thinking (and taking action) on the future?

In fact, no one is an expert on the future…no one knows what will happen.   But for more than 50 years, a profession has taken up the challenge of discovering, developing and apply a disciplined, creative and strategic way of approaches the challenge of anticipating and planning for the future.   It is influenced by a variety of social sciences (ever hear of anticipatory anthropology?) .    Though some variations exist, futures thinking and/or approaches are largely a matter of applying a disciplined framework to questions related to “what will happen in XYZ sector and what is the best possible pathway for us to commit to as we travel through the next 5-10 year period?”    This is referred to frequently as a “futures mindset.”  Some utilize a method called “foresight” practice, others scenario planning (often coupled with forecasting).    Generally, futures “practice” relates to a variety of methods of strategic thinking/planning that depend upon creative as well as logical extrapolation.   All fit into the category of “futures” thinking or practice.

  • What are key principles of “futures” thinking?  What are examples of how it is being used?

It’s currently in vogue to avoid black/white and either/or thinking.   Most agree that in many cases related to modern life – absolutes are increasingly hard to find and that we have to learn to hold both/and in our minds, often balancing contradictions in tension simultaneously.   Futures thinking requires even more of us – introducing a number of complimentary as well as contradictory principles that require us to “hold in our minds” simultaneously as various matters concerning the future are considered.  The following principles are in many ways the “container” for futures work.  The work of a futures practitioner is to assist groups in keeping them in focus while working through the challenging of plotting a planning project in a particular sector.  Keeping them all in forefront of our minds is challenging!   Consider that:

  • šThe future is plural (many scenarios possible)
  • šThe future is a combination of alternative futures: possible, plausible, probable and preferable
  • šThe future is open (not fixed)
  • šThe future is fuzzy (of course we can’t “know” exactly how the future will unfold, and our foresight is imperfect, limited).
  • šThe future is surprising (not always smooth or continuous). Sometimes it arrives in unexpected ways.
  • The future is not surprising (sometimes the future is boring).
  • The future is fast (the future is always accelerating).
  • šThe future is slow (accelerating change gets all the attention, but a balance of the future is also slow, plodding and predictable).
  • šThe future is archetypical (or generic) – refers to the way that we “think” about the future.  Studies in the area tend to reflect four general generic ways of thinking about the future: continue, collapse, discipline and transformation.
  • šThe future is both inbound and outbound.  Our personal and organizational futures are shaped by two sets of forces: change that happens to us (from the external world) beyond our control – inbound.  Change that we create ourselves – based on our decisions and actions – outbound.

Daniel Bengston (2018).  Principles for thinking about the future and foresight education.   World Futures Review, 10(3), 193-202.

  • What are the most important points of intersection for the social work profession with “futures” practice?

Social workers, among other things, are planners – and it would seem logical that social work might be a great fit for futures thinking.   Unfortunately, little literature exists to suggest that we’ve been active consumers of these tools in our work and/or educational processes.    In short – we can apply these principles to the way we think about “our” issues within our own typical focal areas of practice and research (such as across the Social Work Grand Challenges).  For example – we can use our expertise to imagine “the future of” social problems such as homelessness, child abuse, poverty, mental illness, etc. and then extrapolate how our social work approaches might best evolve to better meet and/or match upcoming likely trends.    At the same time, we can join with other activists and/or innovators who may be operating somewhat “outside” our typical social work practice arenas – folks that are working directly with artificial intelligence, climate change, and/or block chain (and/or the future of the internet).    One particularly “grand challenge” with a climate change focus may be among the best examples of movement in this direction.  

Note: What Futures Thinking Isn’t

  • It isn’t “predicting” the future in any way – results are reasoned, collective and creative sets of ideas generated by stakeholders and explicitly limited and preliminary.    That said, it is often the best that can be generated to anticipate elements such as likely, possible, plausible and unlikely ideas about what the future might hold.
  • At it’s best, futures thinking/work ALWAYS includes a strong focus on explicitly engaging with exploration of “unintended consequences” of various decisions, actions or directions.  Again, not a guarantee, but all too frequently, fundamentally missing from the planning processes of otherwise intelligent people and/or groups.
  • Isn’t ONLY about the future.  The past (history, tradition, culture) matter – as does the present in understanding what may/may not happen in the future.
  • Wasn’t invented in the western modern era.  In fact Indigenous peoples have widely operated with sacred and dedicated focus on generations beyond those currently alive.   Deep cultural as well as scholarly commitment exists to demonstrate these principles in action.
  • It isn’t a parlor game – it is a specific and disciplined set of theory and methods.  That said, it requires fun and creativity (so maybe it is a little like a parlor game!).    At least it incorporates PLAY as well as serious reflection of difficult and even scary possibilities for the future, and then requires smart and committed people to work together to create paths forward with an aspirational tone and intended to build agency, excitement, and momentum towards creating the future rather than just waiting for it to drop.

Leave a comment to share your own ideas about what’s been shared!  Be part of the conversation!!