Liz Alexander, Ph.D. 

Preparing for the Unpredictable

Here Are the 3 Valuable Skills for Future Leadership Success

Up to half their activities can be automated, so what's left for leaders to do?

Posted Mar 27, 2017

Eliens/pixabay.com
Source: Eliens/pixabay.com

When it comes to determining which jobs are most likely to be automated, the role of leaders once seemed pretty secure. In 2013, two University of Oxford professors published a study entitled "The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?" in which they analyzed 702 different occupations. Chief Executive was one of the 10 percent designated “not computerizable.”

That was then; this is now. When McKinsey Global Institute published this article about machines replacing humans, they revealed that the percentage of activities in professional and management roles that could potentially be automated in the US had nudged up to 50%. Meaning that higher level jobs were at greater risk than originally thought.

The reasons are not hard to see when you think about it. Consider, for example, “democratization,” arguably one of the most potent social, technological and economic trends today. One that inspired disruptions like 42, a tuition-free coding school in which no teachers or other “leaders” are necessary because students learn through what the founder describes as “collaborative education.” Then there’s the increasing tendency to disdain experts more generally, not least because of what psychologists have termed the “curse of expertise,” in which over-confidence can outpace someone's competence.   

Nevertheless, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise study found that 79 percent of teenagers want to lead a company by the time they reach 29. So what competencies might be most needed in the future? To answer that, we first need to take a short detour into the past.

The legacy of Leffingwell

The belief that certain problems required “an executive type of mind” emerged in the early 20th century when William Henry Leffingwell applied the Taylorism obsession with efficiency to the practice of office management. Such workforce automation, wrote Leffingwell, would enable the “scientific manager to earn his salary” by freeing up time to handle exceptional cases rather than routine, day-to-day processes.

What few seem to have questioned in any practical sense since, is how much better the “executive mind” really is. While the responsibilities of a CEO vary considerably, depending on whether you’re talking about a start-up or a mature enterprise, the following three activities help uncover the cognitive capabilities that future leaders should perhaps focus on instead.

Look to the future

Cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett once described the human brain as an “anticipation machine.” Yet foresight remains rare because most people find it hard to imagine a future radically different from the past or present. That’s especially true for those considered “experts” based on occupational status, or who have operated in the same business for many years. (Which brings us back to the “curse of expertise”.)

According to AOL co-founder Steve Case in The Third Wave, Don Logan, the former chairman of AOL Time Warner’s Media and Communications Group, was “someone who didn’t believe the Internet had much of a future.” He wasn't alone in a lack of foresight; the Internet is awash with stories of leaders who never saw the future coming until it was too late.

In which case it would seem sensible for future leaders (let alone today’s) to work on their visioning and strategic foresight skills. At least to learn to think more like a futurist.

MonikaP/pixabay.com
Source: MonikaP/pixabay.com

Wisdom at work  

High-level hubris is especially prevalent around financial decision-making and risk in today's organizations. For example, Stanford and Wharton business school researchers Malmendier and Tate reported that “top corporate decision makers persistently overestimate their own skills relative to others” in a paper entitled "Does Overconfidence Affect Corporate Investment?"

This illusion of financial skill was highlighted in psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. After visiting a financial services firm and analyzing the investment outcomes of 25 wealth managers over eight consecutive years, Kahneman concluded that “The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.”

But we shouldn't finger-point! Countless studies have shown that humans act irrationally and make poor financial decisions, especially in complex situations. So bring in the algorithms for the numbers crunching, by all means, and free up time for future leaders to employ the wisdom and good judgment that machines don’t have.

markusspiske
Source: markusspiske

Getting Along

But perhaps one of the easiest and most basic competencies that will be in great demand going forward is something that current leaders consistently rate low on their list of priorities. Can you guess what it is? It’s a skill that you would think would figure much higher, considering the increase in workplace diversity and new strategic approaches like “co-opetition.” Yet leaders polled for PwC’s 2015 Global CEO Survey considered collaboration their least critical competence. Despite the fact that Deloitte’s most recent Global Human Capital Trends report cites collaboration as a “critical leadership skill.”

So, here’s a prediction I feel confident in making: tomorrow’s business leaders won’t look or act like the senior executives we’ve experienced in the past, or even today. The ones still holding those positions are going to need to change fundamentally in order to avoid extinction, not least in the way they think. Hold that in mind if you’re a young person with aspirations to lead in the near future, or intend to smartly groom one for future success. 

(A version of this article angled more toward the C-suite originally appeared in Fast Company in June 2016.)