Thinkers: Author Bob Johansen on Leading in Chaotic Times

Stephanie Overby

To get an idea of just how volatile and chaotic the future business environment could become, look no further than the toll from Hurricane Harvey, which lashed the Texas coast for four days in August.

The storm broke decades-old records for tropical rainfall. It forced tens of thousands of people out of their homes, many with no idea when or how they would return. It caused petrochemical explosions and fires, shut down oil refineries and rigs, and sent U.S. gas prices rising. Analysts predicted that the storm would become the most expensive in American history, wreaking as much US$190 billion in damage and lost productivity. Businesses, hospitals, airports, and ports were shut for days.

In the following weeks, Hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Maria decimated entire Caribbean islands, leaving millions without power, thousands homeless, businesses in complete limbo, and entire populations with uncertain prospects. The impact of these storms will ultimately reach beyond the regions that took the physical brunt of them in the form of lost sales and higher costs for suppliers and customers of the affected businesses.

Natural catastrophes won’t be the only contributors to chaos in the next decade, says Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California. Johansen has been an applied futurist for more than four decades. In his new book, The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything, he says that the speed, frequency, scope, and scale of disruption from global climate change, cyberterrorism, pandemics, and more are likely to increase in the next decade—with few clear patterns to the upheavals. Most people, business executives included, are not prepared for the extreme dilemmas they will face in the years ahead, Johansen argues.

This emerging world will demand new kinds of leaders: those who are very clear about where they are going but very flexible about how to get there. They will need to navigate through disruption while providing the direction necessary to make it tolerable, even motivating, for the people under them. To be convincing, leaders will need to face their own fears and learn from them.

Neither flexibility nor resilience will come naturally. Johansen offers advice for how to rehearse for the future and develop the skills to navigate the high-risk realities ahead.

Q. You argue that the future will be so dangerous and difficult to understand that most of today’s leaders will be ill prepared to succeed.

Bob Johansen: The whole premise of the book is that we are going to be operating in a future that will be a lot more complicated, a lot less certain, and a lot more dangerous. Enduring leadership qualities like strength, humility, and trust will still be important, but the future will require new literacies in order to thrive.

The word I find myself using a lot is scramble. For at least the next decade, the world will be in a scramble; many things that have been stuck will become unstuck, and there will be an unusually high number of unintended consequences. It will be an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world—VUCA, to use the military term developed by the U.S. Army War College. VUCA situations have always challenged leaders on a local scale, but not on the global scale that they will experience over the next decade thanks to our interconnected world. Climate disruption, cyberterrorism, and pandemics, for example, will take place to degrees previously unimaginable.

But there are ways to deal with a VUCA world. Vision, understanding, clarity, and agility –a “positive VUCA”—are the foundations of the new leadership literacies that I propose. They provide a process to take advantage of the scramble, enabling leaders to navigate the future in positive and practical ways.

Leaders are going to encounter things they’ve never seen before. If you want to lead in that kind of environment, you have to practice. You need safe zones where you can immerse yourself in simulated VUCA in order to figure out how to manage it.

Q. How can you simulate uncertainty and chaos?

Johansen: That’s essentially what a video game is: an environment in which players can be safely scared in the interest of developing their own readiness and resilience. In games, individuals can confront their fears and learn to play through them in a low-risk setting. It’s an immersive learning experience. I believe that gaming—the ability to enter and operate within emotionally laden first-person stories—will evolve into the most powerful learning medium we’ve ever had.

Q. Do any businesses use immersive games as a leadership development tool?

Johansen: Healthcare providers and first responders conduct a lot of training using simulation, but I have not seen a single company take this approach enterprise-wide. The simulations that are popular are more often designed to help people navigate present-day challenges than to prepare for future possibilities.

The most advanced real-life immersive learning experience in fear engagement I’ve ever seen is at the U.S. Army’s Fort Irwin National Training Center in the Mojave Desert. It’s a soldier’s last stop before heading off to war. I observed a two-week long, 24-hour-a-day war game complete with real tanks, aircraft, and enemy actors. It’s like a massive real-life video game. It’s designed to be harder than real warfare so that anything you confront in actual combat will feel familiar. Those soldiers develop strategies to succeed in very chaotic situations. It’s an extreme example of the value of voluntary fear engagement.

Q. How can companies encourage leaders to have experiences like those of gamers or soldiers?

Johansen: Video games are intense. Fort Irwin is extreme. There are other ways to challenge yourself with immersive experiences. Living in a foreign country where you’re unfamiliar with the language, the people, and the cultural norms is a form of immersive learning—one that I’d encourage all leaders to undertake.

When you get that awkward feeling in the pit of your stomach, that’s a key indicator that you’re in a learning space. Unfortunately, most senior leaders avoid such learning experiences; they don’t want to be uncomfortable or embarrassed.

But if you push past the discomfort, there’s another phenomenon that happens when you’re in a deep learning state. Activities that are risky and hard to accomplish can ultimately stimulate a sense of discovery that has a natural flow to it. There’s an energy you get from overcoming the obstacles. Overcoming obstacles is meaningful, and everyone needs a sense of meaning if they’re going to thrive in the midst of the scramble.

Q. You say that in a world of constant disruption, leaders will need grit. Can you learn this?

Johansen: Absolutely. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, former McKinsey consultant and inner-city schoolteacher Angela Duckworth described it as “the tendency to sustain interest in an effort towards very long-term goals.” The people who will succeed in a shape-shifting future will be full of grit, hope, and optimism, and it will be up to leaders to keep people that way, seeing adversity and change as opportunities more than challenges.

Some characteristics of grit are endurance, optimism, creativity, and courage. These qualities can be developed well through immersive learning. And that should be the ultimate goal of voluntary fear engagement. When you’re immersing yourself in these experiences, you do it not just to increase your adaptability; you’re building grit. Resilience will be necessary but not sufficient for the leadership demands of the future; grit will be required. D!


Stephanie Overby

About Stephanie Overby

A Boston-based journalist, Stephanie Overby has covered everything from Wall Street to weddings during her career. She is currently focused on the implications of digital transformation.