Think the unthinkable

Recently I attended a leadership retreat hosted by the Australian Davos Connection, part of the World Economic Forum. I was honoured to attend with local and global leaders looking at some of the big issues facing us all.

One of the big themes was how we cannot predict what new disruption will be upon us – only that it is inevitable. It was fascinating to hear CEOs, university Vice Chancellors, politicians and Generals talk about the near future: the impact of the rise of China, AI and the increased risk of cyber terrorism.

We were asked to ‘think the unthinkable’, as in, what are the things we can’t imagine now, but will seem obvious even a year down the track? The rise of the #metoo movement is an example. It wasn’t around last year, but if you think about it, a backlash against sexual violence and harassment was not unthinkable 12 months ago. Still, it caught many by surprise. So what are your current ‘unthinkables’ that you need to be thinking about? How do you cultivate a mindset of clarity, responsibility, and agility – to be clear on your path but responsive when the seemingly unthinkable happens?

I found it interesting that there was broad recognition that what got us to where we are now as leaders can be the biggest obstacle to moving toward where we need to go. I absolutely agree with this.

The very skills that bought us success can be the ones that undo us if we don’t evolve. The ego driven approach that got some people ahead is incompatible to leading in this age of change and disruption. Similarly, if you got promoted because you are a great manager, your ability to manage won’t be enough to lead your department or team. This can be tough to act on because it requires us to give up what we know has worked, for what is now required from us. Doing so takes courage.

My most important takeaway was this: whilst economic and technical responses are critical, we cannot underestimate the need to build capacity and resilience in our institutions and people. The robots may be here, but the more human we can be is critical to meeting the challenges of our brave new world.

Creating leadership across all areas of an organisation has never been more important. Healthy organisations and engaged citizenry are critical to society navigating this new world we find ourselves in.

Leadership doesn’t have to be showy. It starts with leading yourself with humility and courage. It means taking responsibility for resolving an issue, even if you didn’t cause it. It means not sitting back and giving up because it’s all too hard. True leadership does not rely on given authority to be exercised.

Yes, the challenges we face are immense. Yet purely focussing on technical responses to external threats robs humanity of our most valuable asset: ourselves. Developing our capacity as humans to lead has never been more important.

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