How To Lead For A Hard Future

RASMUS HOUGAARD, Managing Director, Potential Project International
This is an updated version of the article originally published in

Global economic power balances are dramatically shifting as we begin to feel the devastating effects of climate change. What qualities are needed to succeed as a leader in this difficult environment?

In the book No Ordinary Disruption, the three authors – all directors of the McKinsey Global Institute – reported findings from years of analysis of the changes taking place on our planet. Their findings? Global economic power balances will dramatically shift. Technology will change in ways we currently can’t comprehend. The global population will grow and age. The way countries and companies are run will radically change. And maybe most important, due to overpopulation and climate change, we’ll see a devastating scarcity of the resources necessary for life – things like food, water, and habitable shelter.

If just a fraction of this happens, we’re facing a hard future. Many similar messages of impending hardship are coming from organizations like the United Nations, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

So why aren’t we reacting with greater urgency?

The Limits of Human Risk Assessment

Imagine the following: You’re standing on the highway. You turn, and a truck is barreling toward you at 100 miles per hour. What do you do? Do you start contemplating whether the truck is real and how much it will hurt to be hit? Or do you do everything you can to get out of the way?

The answer is easy. Our brains are designed to help us survive by being tuned to immediate changes, such as an oncoming storm or a truck driving full speed toward us. We’ve survived because we’ve evolved to react to these types of immediate danger. This is why visceral threats like snakes, sharks, and spiders scare so many of us.

But when it comes to long-term risks like artificial intelligence (AI) and climate change, we have a difficult time reacting with the same sense of urgency. This is because our brains don’t perceive them the same way. Our brains aren’t wired to see subtle changes in climate, temperature, or sea level the same way they see plane crashes and terrorist attacks. We have no neurological alarm system for slow change.

If the brain could react to slow change like it does to a fast-approaching truck, we’d all be much more assertive in decreasing our environmental footprints. We’d take to the streets to force companies and governments to do the same. But our brains don’t react to long-term risk, leaving many of us blind to the fact that we may be killing the planet as a habitat for our children or creating an unsustainable global economic system.

We are indeed facing a hard future, and we don’t really see it coming.

New Leadership Qualities

As leaders today, we have a responsibility to face the hard challenges of the future. Even if the brains of the people we lead aren’t alarmed by the slow-moving threats we face, we can’t neglect them. We must stand up to face the future with clear eyes and clear minds.

What qualities are needed to succeed as a leader in this difficult environment?

That’s a question my colleagues at Potential Project and I asked ourselves three years ago. Today, after having assessed 35,000 leaders; interviewed 250 executives from companies like Microsoft, Google and Lego; and read through thousands of studies on leadership and neurology, we’re confident in our answer.

The three most important leadership qualities for the 21st century are mindfulness, selflessness and compassion.

When future challenges do hit, if we don’t stand together – clear-minded, with selflessness and compassion – we’ll do what humans have always done: stick with our tribe and fight the others. This reality portends a changed role for leaders.

The True Role of Leaders

When asked about his legacy, Heineken CEO Jean-François van Boxmeer replied, “I’m just a short chapter in a long book. There have been many good CEOs before me and many will follow. My role is merely to prepare the organization for the next generations.”

As leaders, as important as our roles may feel, we’re just short chapters in a much bigger narrative. Yet, as we write our chapter, we have significant power. And with this power comes responsibility – responsibility to the people, communities and societies we serve.

Leadership must be about serving for the greater good. We’re all children of this planet. We all want to be happy; no one wants to suffer. Our most honorable responsibility as leaders is to help increase happiness and decrease unnecessary suffering. This includes serving our communities in a way that makes them better, kinder and more prosperous.

In this light, we as leaders must think and lead for the greater good. We must have the courage to face a hard future and make difficult decisions.

Light in the Darkness

We can’t change the tsunami of challenges coming our way, but we can prepare ourselves and prepare others. We can start now by building more mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion into our organizations. As we creep toward a harder future, we need to engender trust and social cohesion. As leaders, this is our ultimate responsibility.

And it all starts with our minds. Throughout history, conflicts have originated in a mind or a collection of minds. Wars aren’t started by weapons, but by minds filled with anger, prejudice, or hatred. In today’s changing world, we need leaders who can face challenges with selflessness and compassion.

Interviewing leaders from around the world – from across industries and cultures – has given us great hope. Leaders from many of the world’s most successful companies are embracing these qualities. And in the process, they’re creating greater trust and happiness in their organizations, their communities, and our world.

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