I have come to realize that I have a high tolerance for the unknown. The unknown is risky but equally full of potential.

I acknowledge that not everyone shares my  exhilaration for the unknown and admittedly,  too much of it for a prolonged amount of time is exhausting, for anyone. It's exhausting on our human brain, which seeks safety and survival first and foremost. The unknown creates fear.

Considering the next decade however, the unknown is the new normal as we will witness the reinvention of virtually every industry. Great leaders have the ability to see ahead and somehow drag - or influence- an organization towards that vision. In his book The Prime Movers, psychologist Edwin Locke identified the core mental traits of great leaders such as Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Bill Gates, Walt Disney. While they each had their own secret sauce,  he found the common element among them was the ability to envision a new reality and see past what worked yesterday.  

Many more studies have been done since then and the common traits have not varied greatly over the years. However I recently heard an interview with Ray Dalio,  (American billionaire investor, hedge fund manager, and author of the book Principles) where he speaks about certain characteristics that have taken on much more importance in a time of exponential change. I’ve summarized his thoughts and what I’ve seen in the last 6 years of working with leaders on the topic of transformation and disruption.  

Five key traits for future forward leaders looking to lead through the unknown:

The ability to zoom in and zoom out

Leaders who will be able to navigate the next decade have an innate ability to envision the future while being able to see the present and assess the gaps.  When faced with these gaps, they have a compelling need to eliminate or close them. It's a bimodal way of being that makes many uncomfortable. You must be able to see the big picture AND have a sense of what it will take to get there.

I say a “sense” of how to get there because the path is rarely clear. Opportunities are not always immediately visible but without vision and knowledge of the shift in progress, change will happen too slowly or worst, too late.

The ability to be extremely pragmatic  

Future forward leaders adopt a very pragmatic view of how to get stuff done. They are able to understand that it will take discipline and effort to keep a team of people motivated by a big vision consistently, over time.  They partner with those that are able to get into the details of it and build momentum in the form of quick wins and small steps toward progressive goals.  Very few can both see the big picture and manage the details.  Gino Wickman and Mark Winters describe this essential combination in the book Rocket Fuel as the visionary and the integrator.  It is not sustainable or desirable to try and play both roles.

The willingness to learn through action

Ray Dalio suggests that great leaders have a rigorous framework for risk and reward. When you have a vision for the future, you will face naysayers and resistance. Future forward leaders deal with this information strategically. They are not afraid of mistakes on the journey to learning. They are looking for execution at speed combined with informed decision-making.

These leaders understand that taking risks (within a defined sandbox) is imperative to success and fosters a culture of experimentation. This would be defined as mistakes through action vs. inaction understanding that no progress is ever accomplished with status quo.

A disciplined mind with a high degree of emotional awareness

Great leaders are able to remain focused regardless of negativity or resistance. At the root of this is the ability to separate  emotions and feelings. Emotions are a sign but how you feel about it is a choice.  (Sit on that for a while.. It's worth it).

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio was one of the first to conclude that emotions are neuro-physiological reactions unleashed by external or internal stimulus (emotions are physical) whereas feelings are a self-perception of those emotions, (therefore feelings are mental).  This realization was a game changer for me early in my career.

Let’s say someone challenges your view quite aggressively in a group setting, perhaps calling your credibility into question. We subconsciously might have emotions of anger and frustration and our ego wants to immediately defend our position and lash out.  What research shows is that great leaders have an ability to acknowledge the emotions and choose how to “feel” about it. They can choose to feel defensive or simply consider the viewpoint objectively and choose to acknowledge or ignore it.

Future forward leaders realize the thoughts they think - about the emotion they are having - will proceed the feeling. Therefore it is  a true discipline to master those thoughts.  One only needs to watch world class athletes to see this discipline in action. Think Super Bowl or the Olympics: elite athletes have trained their minds to translate the emotions of extreme pressure, fear, uncertainty into feelings of excitement, focus and determination.    Great leaders can stay focused on the war and not get distracted by the many battles along the way. Watch this short, compelling video from Donald Miller (Business made simple university)  on this concept.  

High levels of humility

Last but certainly not least, great leaders are voraciously curious and proactively seek out diverse opinions and points of view in order to further test if they are right or wrong. They are keenly aware of what they don’t know and look to separate opinions from facts.  This takes a healthy amount of humility to have a compelling vision but to be able to recognize that  “I might be wrong on this”.  Great leaders set aside ego and seek out those who will challenge their point of view. Ray Dalio calls this “the art of thoughtful disagreement” describing the act of decision making as a two step process. First, take in all relevant opinions, thoughts and facts, then decide. In an age of rapid change, knowing what you don’t know is more important than knowing what you do know.  “The ability to thoughtfully review everyone’s opinion does not diminish your ability to decide” says Dalio.

This is a massive shift from the command and control leadership style of yesterday to the sense and respond approach required today. Bottom line: diversity of thought is a must to survive in a complex and rapidly changing environment.  If you find yourself in a room with people who all think like you…. Find another room.

One of our core beliefs at Differly is that “technology doesn’t disrupt, people do.”  Disruption is now more than ever, an inside job.

As always, would love to hear your thoughts and feedback.

About the author

Isabelle Perreault

Isabelle is the Founder and CEO of Differly. She has spent her career helping business leaders understand the major drivers of change and helping them survive and thrive in a digital economy. She brings deep expertise in business transformation, corporate and business model innovation and go-to-market planning.

For over 20 years, she has been helping leaders in a wide variety of sectors develop and deploy human-centric, tech-enabled growth strategies. Passionate about entrepreneurship she also serves as a business coach to Startups with several incubators. Prior to launching Differly, she led one of the first Digital Transformation Practices in Canada and was head of Digital Strategy and Marketing for the Ottawa Senators, NHL Hockey Club. Isabelle is Chair of the Ottawa Youth Services Bureau Foundation and a champion for women entrepreneurs.

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