Be Super-Human: Leading through Paradigm Shifts:

Originally published in the Leadership+Design Monthly Recharge, February 14, 2017

This year, our newsletter has focused on the “future of school”and how, in a rapidly changing, global innovation economy and in VUCA conditions, all of us can lead our school communities more effectively, humanely, and joyfully. We’ve written so far this year about the future of space, of pedagogy and curriculum, and of ed-tech. We’ve also written about making schools “life-worthy” and about the history of planning for the future. This month, we are focusing on the future of leadership — nothing seems like a more timely and important topic to tackle.

I’ve thought long and hard about what I can offer this month, at a time when I often wake up feeling uneasy, distracted, and disheartened about the leadership of my own country. It’s a good time to break out Edwin Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. While this book, published in 1999 (three years after Friedman’s death), is hardly new or “futuristic”, Friedman, a Rabbi and family systems therapist, sees the writing on the wall and the early signs of our descent into a highly anxious and somewhat emotionally regressed society. Instead of adopting a Renaissance mindset — eager for adventure and novelty — our society seeks familiarity and security, and is overly nostalgic. In turn, leaders find themselves trying to manage over-wrought communities characterized by blame, immaturity, reactivity, and a quick-fix mentality, which results, according to Friedman, in a failure of nerve on the part of leadership. Friedman is hopeful, however, which is why you might read the book and try to adopt the qualities of Renaissance explorers that are surprisingly relevant to the contemporary paradigm shifts we are experiencing.

Inspired by this book (again), I’ve reflected on the qualities of highly effective and impactful school leaders that — knowing what I do about the rapid rate of change, about managing increasingly divided (and perhaps divisive) perspectives, and about the abundance of data and information — would be the most valuable and essential to possess if I were to fire up the DeLorean and travel into the distant future.

  1. Managing and even embracing high levels of ambiguity — In the future, there will be plenty of data but it will become increasingly meaningless when it comes to solving complex challenges and leading change successfully. There will be more scenarios where expertise and knowledge of specific skills and content will have almost no relevance, because the conditions will be so unprecedented. Leaders will need to welcome the unknown and create solutions to challenges that have no precedents.
  2. Attuning to self — Leaders of the future will need to possess the ability to be completely grounded and knowledgable in one’s own principles and influence and impact on others. Successful leaders will need to be able to take honest inventory of themselves every single day and be fully responsible for their own role in a group or situation. They will be curious and not defensive about feedback — explicit or implicit — that they receive and they will be fearless in seeking the truth about themselves.
  3. Attuning to others — Leaders of the future will be capable anthropologists and keen observers of human behavior. This skill is different and perhaps more useful than empathy (which Friedman actually sees as a disservice to leaders). Anthropologists are emotionally removed from the observation process. Anthropologists don’t make value judgments but do make inferences from what they see and hear. Tim Brown of IDEO writes in his book Change by Design that “for designers, behaviors are never right or wrong, but they are always meaningful.” Designers must be cultural anthropologists to successfully design products for others, and I would suggest that leaders will need to adopt the same ability to observe carefully and astutely, but without bias, in order to understand, develop insights, and lead with those insights in mind.
  4. Possessing a sense of humor and play — Friedman said, “Playfulness can get you out of a rut more successfully than seriousness.” I believe this is true. A sense of humor and the ability to play keeps our brain synapses firing in ways that suppress judgment, help us to be more creative, persevere through challenges, and bridge divides. Laughing at ourselves and laughing with others enables us to appear as “a non-anxious presence,” as Friedman would say.

In short, leaders of the future will actually need to be more human than ever before, and this, to me, is wonderful news. At least for now, leadership might still be immune to automation and competition from artificial intelligence. So relax (for now), and enjoy your job security leading your school community and leverage your humanity. Be super-human.