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The Five Leadership Superpowers: The Key to Thriving in Turbulent Times (Part 1)

While we cannot control our circumstances, we can decide how to respond and get better at responding effectively. The solution? HR Leaders that learn to effectively navigate five distinct tensions in a world of accelerating change.

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Jan 17, 2024
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Last updated on May 01, 2023

Disruption and uncertainty are nothing new. They’ve been around since the beginning of time: think the Ice Age, volcanos, the rise of agriculture, Gutenberg’s printing press, the Black Plague, the Industrial Revolution, the launch of the internet ... you get my point. Yet the frequency and severity of disruptions and the resulting uncertainty that inevitably follows have increased in recent years due to the increasing pace of technological innovation, geopolitical instability, global economics, social justice movements, climate change, and more.

No wonder leaders feel stressed.

Why Are Disruptions and Uncertainty a Problem?

Disruptions and crises have a nasty habit of appearing unannounced, catching us off-guard. However, we should have been aware of, monitored, assessed and acted on early warning signals in many cases.

Humans love certainty and are very uncomfortable with uncertainty. However, the only certainty is uncertainty. That said, much uncertainty is willful such as when we do not pay proper attention to the world around us, choosing to ignore information we do not like or that makes us uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, the truth is that we rarely work to understand and address emerging challenges or opportunities proactively. Remember, not all disruptions are acts of nature or even necessarily sudden or damaging. Some creep up slowly, unnoticed, or are left unaddressed until it is too late. And given our interdependent and interconnected world, the impact of this negligence can be significant.

The Challenge

While we cannot control our circumstances, we can decide how to respond and get better at responding effectively. Start by answering a few key questions:

  1. How do we prepare for a disruptive and uncertain future so we not only survive but thrive?
  2. What capabilities must leadership have to do this?
  3. What organizational attributes are necessary?

The Solution

The fact is, what’s made leaders and organizations succeed in the past is no longer enough in the face of disruptiveness and uncertainty. New leadership capabilities are needed to help organizations prepare, adapt and act to succeed. The key is seeing differently, thinking differently, and ultimately doing differently. But how do we do this?

Leaders must effectively navigate five distinct but interrelated and interdependent tensions to succeed in a world of accelerating change, frequent disruptions, and rampant uncertainty. These are:

  1. Present vs. Future
  2. Experience/Expertise vs. Learning
  3. Preparedness vs. Risk Taking
  4. Strategy vs. Execution (Operations)
  5. Accountability vs. Collaboration

In response to these challenges and based on extensive research, I developed a new leadership capability model aptly named The Five Leadership Superpowers™ that addresses each of these tensions.

5 leadership superpowers

Before discussing the Superpowers, I want to highlight some foundational principles underlying the model:

  1. This model does not replace core leadership capabilities; it is an overlay set of capabilities that enables leadership to be more effective in turbulent environments.
  2. Both/And Thinking underpins the model. Both/and thinking leads to novel and creative alternative solutions (a 3rd way) far better than the suboptimal options that result from binary thinking. 
  3. The Five Leadership Superpowers are universal capabilities. They apply the same irrespective of industry, strategy, position, or function. 
  4. The Superpowers apply to disruptions as well as opportunities.
  5. The framework is premised on stakeholder capitalism, focused on long-term value creation vs. short-term results, and requires solid and visible leadership support and a foundation of trust, transparency, and psychological safety to be successful.

In the remainder of this article, I will point out the relevance, and some cases, the criticality of each Superpower to people (HR) leaders. Note HR leaders are not solely accountable for the stated items. Accountability for all people matters lies with the entire leadership team. 

Present Futurist™

The Present Futurist™ focuses on both the present and the future, not one at the expense of the other. They do both to prepare for and inform how they prepare for the future (both near- and long-term). The leadership teams of companies like Apple, Amazon, and Disney are known for having this Superpower. They rigorously maintain an understanding of the present and constantly watch trends and a wide range of signals to anticipate the future better. They integrate both to inform decision-making and the actions they take.

A Present Futurist™ does things like:

  • Build and maintain a robust understanding of the present by considering various perspectives, including customers, employees, and owners.
  • Set and communicate the company’s desired future state and direction.
  • Identify, monitor, and assesses trends and early warning signals.
  • Discuss and think through various scenarios, asking “what if” questions to identify unthought-of but plausible scenarios worth considering.
  • Synthesize the insights gained to inform decision-making and priority setting.

The US Department of Defense leadership follows this approach to ensure our armed forces stay prepared and ready for the future. It foresaw the Ukraine Conflict, enabling the US to brief  NATO ahead of time and prepare it to respond rapidly to Russia’s action.

For HR leaders, being a Present Futurist™ is essential, given things like the Great Resignation, staffing/talent challenges, changing nature of the workforce and workplace, and intergenerational challenges. Being on top of and sharing this information with the rest of the leadership enables it to make informed and timely decisions that impact value creation for multiple stakeholders. 

Experienced Learner

The Experienced Learner™ recognizes that the experience and expertise that helped drive success in the past is often insufficient, and even at times irrelevant, to the challenges and opportunities they now and will face. All experience and expertise are not bad; however, they often must be augmented and sometimes replaced by new learning and capability building supported by new learning approaches.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
– Alvin Toffler, “Future Shock”

An Experienced Learner™ does things like:

  • Challenge experience and expertise, knows it may be insufficient. Open to and encourage others to do the same. Does not “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” 
  • Encourage curiosity, ask questions, and encourage others to do the same while ensuring a psychologically safe environment.
  • Engage others, seeking various views from diverse levels, positions, and people, knowing they and other leaders do not have all the answers. 
  • Welcome constructive debate and discussion to test and validate assumptions and generate and evaluate possible solutions to the challenges and opportunities faced.  
  • Practice continuous learning and fosters this throughout the organization; knowing a turbulent environment requires new thinking, capabilities, and skills. 

The WD-40 Company, its leaders, and its employees epitomize this approach. WD-40 stands for Water Displacement, 40th attempt (a success finally). Its 39 failures and what it learned from them led to its ultimate success. When I spoke with Garry Ridge, the former WD-40 Company Chairman and CEO (for 35 years), he did not talk of failures but of learning moments. WD-40 believes that everyone is responsible for their own development. Furthermore, learning moments were welcome, and individuals were not penalized for them as long as they learned and did not repeat the same moment. 

For HR Leaders, being an Experienced Learner™ is critical. Working with other leaders, they foster and support a learning culture, continuously identify the skills and capabilities (talents) required for the future and develop, deliver, and update programs to support building these. 

What’s next?

As you can see, The Five Leadership Superpowers™ help leaders see, think, and do differently. They open up new and critical discussions and provide vital information to improve and accelerate decision making leading to better outcomes and greater value creation for all stakeholders. 

In the next installment coming this summer, we will introduce the remainder of the Superpowers. Then we will share how the Superpowers inform and support one another. Lastly, we will discuss where and how to apply the Superpowers as an HR leader and leadership team member.

Connect further with Jay via LinkedIn at https://linkedin.com/in/jayweiser or on Twitter at @Jay_R_Weiser. Or if you are ready to act now, scheduling a 45-minute complimentary discovery call to share your situation and learn more. To schedule, go to https://calendly.com/jayweiser.

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