5 New Leadership Literacies to Prepare for the Future

How Leaders Thrive in a Future of Extreme Disruption

If you want to get ready for the future, you need new leadership literacies. That’s what noted futurist Bob Johansen teaches those who aspire to lead well into the future. If you’re a rising star and want to prepare for what’s ahead, this book outlines future trends and skills you need in the decades to come.

Bob Johansen is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Silicon Valley. He has worked with global organizations from P&G to Disney. He’s the author or co-author of ten books. His newest is The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything.



Warning: Disruptions Ahead

Share a few current trends that will disrupt everything in the next ten years.

I distinguish between trends (patterns of change you can extrapolate with confidence) and disruptions (breaks in the patterns of change). The next ten years will be a VUCA World—Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous—and it will get worse over the next decade. On the other hand, it will be possible to succeed, make the world a better place, and even thrive in the VUCA World. These new literacies will allow you to thrive, not just survive.

We think we are connected today, but the next 10 years will be a period of explosive connectivity and asymmetric upheaval. In this future world of dramatically amplified digital connectivity, anything that can be distributed will be distributed.



Master Distributed Leadership

You say that, “Leadership will be much less centralized and more distributed,” which seems to be happening today and accelerating more tomorrow. How will this impact us? How will organizational structures change in the future?

Shape-shifting organizations have no center, and they can’t be controlled. Hierarchies will come and go as they are needed. Hierarchies will become less common since they are more rigid.

Anything that can be distributed will be distributed.



Copyright Bob Johansen; Used by Permission


Looking backward from the future wasn’t surprising. Most strategic planning exercises have some elements of this, but you take it further. What does it look like when a leader is doing this well? When (if ever) should a leader not focus on ten years out?  

Successful leaders will be those who can provide a clear vision for the organization (goals, objectives, success, etc.) while offering a flexible path to achieve those goals. They will have to be “backcasters,” not forecasters. Successful leaders will be able to inspire hope in their organizations and provide clarity through every type of medium – in person and digitally, whether they are “there” in person with employees or not.

By inspiring hope for their organization’s vision, a leader’s teams will be able to confidently and creatively develop positive solutions to market disruptions and new opportunities.


5 New Leadership Literacies:

1: Looking backwards from the future

2: Voluntary fear engagement

3: Leadership for shape-shifting organizations

4: Being there when you’re not there

5: Creating and sustaining positive energy


As part of this, you say, “The future will reward clarity—but punish certainty.” Talk about that and the tension.

The SCRAMBLE of the next decade will be a ripe time for innovation if leaders are ready. Those who are unsticking things are not likely to be as good at putting them back together again.

In this world, leaders will need to be very clear where they are going, but very flexible about how they get there. Clarity is very different from certainty, however. Certainty is too brittle in a VUCA World, while clarity is required to make your way through uncertainty.



You recommend that leaders “voluntarily engage in fear,” which goes against natural instincts. Why do you advocate this? How is the younger generation better prepared to do this?

I like to think of it as gameful engagement and immersive learning. Kids will be much better prepared than adults for this world, since so many of them grew up with video gaming—where digital interfaces are far better than typical office systems. Gameful engagement is mostly entertainment today—often too sexual and too violent, in my opinion—but what we call “gaming” today will evolve into the most powerful learning medium in history.

Younger leaders will be better prepared for this future than older leaders because many of them are already in a blended-reality world, with constant mobile online filters for the physical world. They are online, unless they are off. For most adult leaders, we are offline—unless we are on.



Be There Even When You’re Not

Be there even when you’re not there. Would you distinguish the current literacy from the future literacy in this area?


Copyright Bob Johansen. Used by permission.




Cultivate Future Leadership Skills

What skills will the best leaders have to master this?

These future leadership skills are drawn from my Leaders Make the Future book and they align with the new leadership literacies.

Copyright Bob Johansen. Used by Permission.


Create and sustain positive energy. Why will positive energy be more important in the future?

In a VUCA World, hope is the key variable. Leaders need to seed realistic hope, and they can only do that if they create and sustain positive energy. Here is a simple checklist that leaders can use to assess themselves:

  • When I walk into a room, I radiate positive energy.
  • I have a disciplined approach to my own physical, mental, and spiritual (not necessarily religious) fitness in the face of my daily work and life pressures.
  • I balance my personal energy through my working day (I moderate my peaks and droops), and I am resilient under pressure.
  • I create space for people I lead to balance their own physical, mental, and spiritual energy.



If you look at leadership in ten years and compare it to leadership throughout history, what qualities are different?

Bob Johansen
Author & Futurist Bob Johansen

As William Gibson said so eloquently, “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” At Institute for the Future, we look for signals that reveal that unevenly distributed future. Most signals fail, but they tend to fail in interesting ways. Teach yourself to identify the signals and distinguish them from the noise of the present. Immerse your self in the future that is already here.

Perhaps the most powerful way to learn about the future is reverse mentoring. Those young people who are 21 or under in 2017 are “digital natives,” and the younger they are, the stronger the effect. Learn from them, even as you offer your own wisdom. Go there with them into the rich world of video gaming and learn from them.



Is there a famous leader in the past who you think wouldn’t stand a chance of success if they were born in the future?

It used to be that a leader could succeed by focusing on deciding and acting quickly and with authority. Now, leaders must cycle continuously from foresight to insight to action. They must resist deciding too quickly (the classic mistake of the problem solver) as well as deciding too late (the classic mistake of the academic). Action without foresight in the VUCA world will be dumb, dangerous, or both.




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