Book Review: Leaders Make The Future by Bob Johansen

The future is a tricky thing. An opening sentiment I’m sure many economists, policy makers and politicians would agree with right now, but also a logical truism. Books about the future and what it will bring always set themselves to invite ridicule a few years down the line, and have an inevitable lack of concrete foundations: what the future holders, even for professional futurologists such as Bob Johansen, can only ultimately be subjective guesswork. Whether we are looking at the future of work (as Richard Donkin did in another book reviewed here), of leadership, of organisations, or of society, it’s worth remembering a lesson from talent management: past performance is not a reliable guide. Yet, as Marshall McLuhan once observed, “We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror.”

As a former President and Board member of the Institute For The Future, Bob Johansen should be as qualified a guide to what lies ahead as we are likely to find, drawing on four decades of experience of future casting for some of the world’s largest organisations. By its very nature, the future has always been uncertain; recently, the level of uncertainty seems to be increasing and leaders can no more be immune for anxiously wonder what it will mean for them than anyone else. Books such as Leaders Make The Future are, perhaps, only to be expected: that Johansen is one of a small number of authors essaying serious attempts to address this audience is to be welcomed.

The subject area is one where repeatedly quoting McLuhan is quite tricky, but one quote seems especially pertinent:

Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools and yesterday’s concepts.”

Extending the scopes to an attempt to understand the tools and concepts that will be required for tomorrow’s job can only ramp up the audience’s anxiety, and Johansen outlines ten skills that he identifies as key requirements for leaders in the future as he anticipates it.

As a read, the book has both strengths and weaknesses. The greatest of its strengths are its introductory outlining of potential future change drivers – diasporas, the future shape of civic society, access to food, ecosystems and ‘amplified individuals’ (the biological application of medical science and technology), and the three overarching messages outlined in the preface:

  • The VUCA world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity will get worse in the future
  • The VUCA world will have both danger and opportunity
  • Leaders must learn new skills in order to make a better future.”

For this reader, however, there are two important weaknesses. Firstly, that the crispness of the introductory section is not carried through into the chapters focusing on the skills that Johansen identifies: this is a book in need of re-editing to provide not so much clarity (although there is material here that could, to the book’s benefit, be cut) so much as flow. This is a book that contains many valuable nuggets and examples, but it requires the reader to undertake the mining and panning as they read.

The second is that some the ‘skills’ are either not new, or are repackaged versions of existing ideas, trends or concepts. Smart mobs, commons creativity, rapid prototyping and bio-empathy (read ‘green thinking’) are topics that have been heavily explored and promoted, in the latter case for some considerable time. While they may be fresh ideas to some rising leaders, it suggests a failure to read beyond the business pages if this is the case. Given the authors’ working milieu, it’s reasonable to assume he has a good understanding of his audience, but a more general message to read beyond the business pages and to ‘look over the hedge’ more often and more widely might then have been an important over-riding message of the book.

This is a common point to make on the ‘futurology’ genre in general. While we will all experience the same future at a ‘broad brush’ level, our specific futures – both as we experience them and as we work to create or shape them – will be more differentiated. While the emergence of green practices and corporate social responsibility have actively encouraged businesses and their leaders to consider their impact on the world around them, most leaders – and their organisations – would surely benefit from taking a longer and more analytical view of the world around them and how its changes will impact on them.

The drivers that Johansen highlights won’t only impact directly on organisations: they will also impact on individuals and on societies – the workforces and marketplaces of the same organisations. As he points out in his conclusion:

A forecast, whether or not you agree with it, is a great way to provoke thinking, which can lead to insight. In the next generation of the Internet age, everyone will know what’s new. The challenge for leaders will be to derive insight from the messiness around them and sense what’s important.”

Reading the book at the end of 2011, two years after it was written, some recent events both amplify or query some of its central points. If we look not just to the Arab World but to Greece and Italy, leaders with one view of the future have seen themselves unseated by events, and by popular pressure from those whose paradigms are fundamentally different: in their very different ways, Arabic street crowds and market traders have both acted as ‘smart mobs’ that have mobilised to achieve their desired objectives. In 2009, many hoped or believed that the world – or at least the Western, industrialised world, would quickly find ways of returning to 2007; in 2011, there is a greater understanding that we must inevitably go forward.

We also, perhaps, have a greater understanding of unforeseen or previously unconsidered impacts of events or actions. (I’m thinking not so much of the impacts of the ‘financial crisis’ as of things like Mary Portas’ review and proposals for the British High Street. E-commerce and out-of-town retail parks don’t just change the patterns of shopping and impact on retailers. High Streets have also been the traditional social core of towns: changing retail patterns have impacted on our models of civic society.) As the world around us changes, it’s not just our tools and concepts that we need to adjust; the paradigms that sit at the heart of our organisational cultures need to be reviewed too (as Chris Rogers pointed out in another recent post.)

Ultimately, like any futurology work, the book’s real significance lies not so much in the thoughts of the author (though many are valuable and informative) as in the thoughts – and actions – it invokes in its readers. Like many of the most valuable books (and not just for leaders), its merits are not in the answers that some of its readers will hope that it conveniently provides on a plate, but in the questions it inspires them to seek answers to – a sentiment I suspect its author would share.

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