The Whole World is Turned Upside Down
We live today in a globally interconnected context that is changing by the moment, rife with rapid political, economic and environmental disruption and discord. We face perhaps more volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity than any generation before in recent human history. As we head into what is being described as “exponential times,” the remarkable rate of change fuels the chances of being caught by surprise in the marketplace or in leadership now more than ever. By “exponential”, we mean your industry and organization is living in a world where changes in technologies and aspects of your business model are disrupted almost daily. Disruption ultimately means that people are thinking, acting, relating and purchasing in entirely new manners that “interrupt” the heretofore predominant business models and transform the very systems in which we interact. This, in turn, impacts how we consume, how we produce, how we organize our supply chains, how we grow, and how we lead.
The challenge with the exponential function of our times is that it’s incomprehensible. We get it cognitively – up to a point – and then our brains cannot process it. This constant disruption and speed of change together are destabilizing traditional pathways to personal and organizational leadership success, and challenging our ability to adapt at a rate that keeps pace with the change afoot. To not just survive, but thrive, in this environment, our thinking must be equal or superior to the complexity of the environment in which we interact. And to foster the capacity to create new success stories in the face of change, we must be resilient and adaptive in the face of this relentless pressure.
But, as the Navy SEALS saying goes, under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion; you sink to the level of your training. The problem is, our education and traditional approaches to thinking and leading have not prepared us to handle the level of disruption we face. Applying yesterday’s logic to today’s disruptive environment — let alone tomorrow’s — will not yield sustainable results. Repetition without progress produces incapacity as a result.
Einstein makes the challenge clear: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved from the same level of consciousness that created them.” We need new ways of thinking, learning and leading, and we need them fast, as the exponential pace of change further exacerbates the gap.
The Challenge Posed by Exponential Times
The problem is, the exponential pace of change is incomprehensible to our human brains. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee claim, “The great shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. Linear goals will not be successful in a world that is changing exponentially.”¹ We “get” the constant acceleration of technology, advancement and change cognitively – up to a point – and then our brains cannot process the rest. This is in part due to the fact that, historically, our Western cultures (both nationally and organizationally) have reinforced linear, cause and effect processing versus exponential brain processing. Primarily linear neural networks worked for a certain time in history, but now we cannot process beyond a certain point for exponential change – our brains literally are not conditioned to see it. However, with the new discoveries in neuroscience today, the brain is much more elastic and adaptable than first believed, and we may be able to “train our brains” into exponential processing.
We have, essentially two choices: Continue responding to external disruptive reality with old, comfortable logic, creating corresponding, often unconscious, inner discord, stress and eventual incapacity, or find a way to shift from linear to exponential thinking and leading.
We believe that exponential change means we need to embrace Exponential Leadership: a way of thinking and leading that helps us navigate through the challenging questions of our time and avoid the trap of linear thinking to proactively reinvent ourselves in the rapidly accelerating marketplace. Exponential leadership means empowering mindsets and skillsets to transform fear into positive outcomes. It means re-training our brains with the help of what we call, “the three C’s”— Forging clarity in the midst of ambiguity, allowing congruence with exponential thinking in the face of prevailing linear logic, and embracing leadership courage to proactively drive transformation.²
HOW MIGHT WE ADAPT? The Shift to Exponential Leadership
Over the past 20 years, we have had the incredible honor of working with thousands of executives across multiple industries from over 50 countries, strengthening their global leadership capabilities. Increasingly, we have noticed a widening gap between those leaders seeking to adapt and model ways to face the complexity and exponential change of our times and those who are clinging to yesterday’s logic with equal intensity.
The thing is, personal change precedes systemic change. Organizations or communities cannot organize at an exponential level if their leaders are operating from a mostly linear perspective. Until a critical mass of an organization’s leaders shifts into more exponential leadership, the larger collective will be hindered in navigating new terrain in an evolved and sustainable fashion. The good news is, new discoveries in cultural anthropology, neuroscience, genetics and evolutionary biology offer us the tools to accelerate the adaptation process.
Facing this challenge of fostering collective adaptation, though, means that leadership is not only a personal practice, but a collaborative relationship and a shared process of transformation that fosters the collective capacity to create new realities. Let’s break that down:
- Leadership is something that can be expressed personally, uniquely through the prism of each individual’s personality, culture, capabilities, meaning and subjective experience.
- Leadership is a practice, as in something you strengthen every day, through routinely applying the mindsets and skillsets, and learning and growing through both successes and failures. To the extent that you are intentional about your practice, your growth will follow.
- It’s a collaborative relationship with diverse groups of people you seek to engage and inspire to achieve meaningful, shared outcomes together. Innovation, for example, requires an inclusive and vibrant engagement of diverse values and viewpoints within teams, partnerships, and across functional units in an organization.
- Leaders create the culture around them, which is a shared process not only in the sense that you can’t be leading and engaging others unless someone is following. In today’s highly networked, global world, leadership can come from the collective energy of groups and expectations of new norms, which also shapes the culture around us. It was a collective process in Egypt, for example, which toppled Mubarak, not some single heroic leader. A shared experience and shared process of leading change drove towards a new reality. Leaders today who can tap into that power of the collective consciousness and urge to create something meaningful together will forge more possibilities than standing alone.
- Leadership is about transformation, deep change that means shifting to higher levels of personal and organizational effectiveness. Transformation requires making our invisible values and beliefs visible through personal exploration, and helping others make the unconscious conscious to better navigate forward. It also involves making the “unseen” forces of all dimensions of our human experience, i.e. cognitive, emotional, spiritual, social, physical, more “seen” to better collaborate and innovate together.
- It’s about creating new realities in the sense that leaders help us move from our current challenges to a desired future vision by navigating through the natural discomfort of change of values and behavior.
So if leadership plays a key role in our collective ability to respond to exponential change, then what is the process that accelerates that transformation of leaders?
1 Brynjolfsson, McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, Norton, 2014
2 Clarity, Congruence and Courage™ are what we call leadership guideposts for transformation (Source: Inner Power International, Inc. ©2015-2016).
This article is the first in a 3-part series from a white paper entitled HOW CAN WE DEVELOP LEADERS FOR EXPONENTIAL TIMES? authored by Karen Walch, PhD and Lee Ann del Carpio, and used with permission from CLAIR-BUOYANT™ LEADERSHIP, LLC AND INNER POWER INTERNATIONAL, INC.