Character, competence and perspective: the key ingredients to lead from and for the future

The Futurecast series kicked off by putting an abyss in front of the reader. That is, the future is plural, unpredictable and rarely a linear path from the present. We explored possible post-COVID scenarios and their potential implications and opportunities for brands, marketers and the industry. Still, the abyss linking present to future remains right in front of us. The pandemic has taught that foreseeing can be more useful than forecasting. Hindsight is literally 2020 and as for 2021… well, you have a choice to make: be a passenger relinquishing responsibility for your emotions, feelings and outcomes to other people or choose to be a leader every single day, making a positive impact on those around you and taking accountability in every moment for your own beliefs and actions.

Easier said than done. Confusion and decision paralysis permeate most marketing departments, agencies and publishers – all carefully threading reality, with a little help from the past. But, as we now know, using the past to project the future is a fallacy.

 

Image: Lead from the Future by Mark W. Johnson and Josh Suskewicz

 

The psychological biases binding us to the present and blinding us from the future

Bounded rationality: challenges the notion of human rationality as implied by the concept of homo economicus. Rationality is bounded because there are limits to our thinking capacity, available information and time.

Hyperbolic discounting: refers to the tendency for people to increasingly choose a smaller-sooner reward over a larger-later reward as the delay occurs sooner rather than later in time.

Availability bias: the human tendency to think that examples of things that come readily to mind are more representative than is actually the case, hampering critical thinking and, as a result, the validity of our decisions.

The present-forward fallacy: the seductive notion that an existing business can be extended out in time indefinitely by continuously making improvements to it.

Tyranny of the urgent: an analysis of the calendars 27 CEOs over a full quarter showed that, on average, they had 37 meetings per week, which took up to 72 percent of their time. Is it any wonder they have so little time to imagine a better future?

 

The bridge linking ‘what is’ with ‘what could be’ is intention. Therefore, rather than strategising on ‘how to better play today’s game’, the big question becomes ‘what is the game we intend to play to prosper tomorrow?’ In the second instalment of Futurecast, character, competence and perspective are three themes respectively explored by my dear co-authors Sherilyn Shackell, Mark W Johnson and Saul Betmead de Chasteigner. Either way, buckle up, we are in for one hell of a ride!

Character: the key ingredient to forging leaders for the future

Leadership is not a position of authority, a job title with director or chief attached to it, or a place in the hierarchy.

True leadership is quite simple… it is the process of empowering, enabling and inspiring others to be their best selves. It is about influencing those around you to be better, feel safer, become stronger, think more clearly, take informed decisions and make good choices.
Ultimately, it is about having the courage to pave a way that others have not dared to take before. Or, as demonstrated by the Financial Times’ New Agenda campaign, it is about providing guidance even when we don’t have the words to describe the path ahead.

 

Good leadership principles have withstood decades, maybe even centuries, and are broadly unchanged; however, given the pandemonium the world has gone through in recent months we’re seeing more leaders in ‘push’ mode, directive, controlling, putting in tough rules and guidelines. And they need to, the world is in crisis. When taking critical and immediate action is short and the likelihood of rejection or resistance is low, it’s perfectly OK to become more commanding – even unilaterally setting firm objectives, directives and boundaries.

 

Necessity is the mother of all invention and, at times, rather than collectively composing the vision ahead, it becomes the leader’s job to do it on their own. No one needed to debate the lockdown rules when they were first announced; we just wanted to be told what to do! In fact, the need to keep life going and shops running was what informed the iconic Keep Calm and Carry On poster produced by the British government in 1939 in preparation for World War II.

 

But too much of this style of autocratic leadership for too long, delivered without empathy, compassion and total transparency and you get… well, riots. The absolute best leaders know when the time is right to shift style, to consult more than dictate, to reveal more about their reasons, to invite input of ideas and balanced viewpoints, to really listen to the people and empower them to begin to take responsibility for their own actions.

Into the future, and through the predicted challenges of the next few years, great leadership will be our only salvation. The good news is that we all have the ability to be great leaders if we allow true character to overtake the fear and insecurity that form the veneer of professional personas.

How the Marketing Academy is forging the leaders for the future.
The Marketing Academy (TMA) provides free but highly selective development programs to talent in marketing, media and advertising. Perhaps
surprising, given its name, professional ‘skill’ development (as in ‘how to be an exceptional marketer’) is only around 25 percent of its curriculum. There is no ‘training’, no course work, no exams and no classrooms, but small and perfectly formed cohorts – a maximum of 30 per year per country.

TMA’s focus is on People Development – ‘how to become an inspirational leader’, Personal Development ­– ‘how to be an extraordinary human being’ and Purpose – ‘what are you on the planet to do and what legacy will you leave?’ This direction comes from a firm belief that our industry influences the minds of every citizen of the planet, with the means to influence other people’s choices, decisions, beliefs and behaviours. It has the power to influence political outcomes, corporate success or failure, and galvanise people behind causes of any kind. Therefore, the talent within marketing, media and advertising are in the ‘leadership’ business with an unsurpassed privilege that is not to be underestimated. This kind of power has the potential to be harmful unless wielded with the ‘right’ moral intent, finely tuned capability, deep wisdom, and ethical awareness.

Finally, TMA holds the belief that every person is born a potential leader, hardwired to rely both psychologically and physiologically on other human beings. Born sociable, no baby is a loner. We are not born haters – or racist, homophobic or misogynistic. No, we’re all born leaders – with the ability to influence those around us. Who doesn’t automatically smile at a smiling baby? Or laugh when you hear them giggle? That’s influence, right there.

 

Listen more, listen better.

The sheer volume of data and insight at marketers’ fingertips is a formidable thing. Marketers can hold a customer’s heartbeat in the palm of their hand and have the ability to foresee when their blood pressure is going up or down. But only if we listen. And who was ever taught how to listen? Since the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press our ears have been replaced by our eyes, an oral culture of shared stories has been taken over by a visual culture of representative images.

We’re all really good at paying ‘ear service’ (the art of being seen to listen, while simultaneously reading an email, sending a text and thinking about next door’s cat) and then choosing to hear only the things that fit our own narrative (which we’re extremely skilled at listening to). If you don’t seek to truly hear what is being said right now, then you’ll fill the gaps based on your own past experiences and patterns from which you’ll create future expectations predicated on your almost subconscious assumptions. This is the opposite of good leadership.

Don’t focus on what you can get, focus only on what you can give.

Well, here’s a real truth. We can’t control what we get. We only have control over what we give. A Marketing Academy speaker once said:

“Great leaders are exhausted every day, not because of how hard they’ve worked but because of how much they’ve given.”
It sounds easy, and it is, but only if you consciously let go of the notion that you are in any way in control of what you get from others.

How many of us want to get more business from our clients, the next promotion, more discount from our suppliers, more output from our teams, more love from our partners and more joy in our lives? We are apt to think about what we want to get and, if we don’t, we feel frustrated, disempowered, resentful… and then put the blame for those feelings directly on others.

Change the way you think to: what can I give my team to enable them to deliver their goals? How can I support my boss in a way that may make their job a little easier? What can I give to my clients to ensure that they can succeed? What can I do for my suppliers to make it easier for them to manage our relationship? What actions can I take to ensure those I love feel that love every single day? What can I give to the people around me to bring a little joy into their lives today? Because you have 100 percent control over what you give.

Those in the C-suite often describe their work experience like being in the rapids, against constant ‘white water’ – thrilling, scary, exhilarating, fun, risky and a consistently changing landscape where, despite the best skill, equipment and practice, navigation can only be done in the moment and sometimes survivable only by holding on and letting go of the outcome. The ability to swiftly adapt, flex, reframe and rise above this overwhelming reality will be vital in the coming years. Accept the fact that there is little you can change about a situation that is out of your control, and then rejoice in the fact that you can have total control over how you choose to respond to it.

The key, therefore, is to learn to rejoice in being and leading uncomfortably. That’s when great leadership becomes the mechanism to transform countries, businesses and people.

What skills will marketers need to drive growth in the years ahead? Download Marketing 2025 to discover how 700 senior executives imagine the future and the top skills and tools you’ll need to master. From the role of machine learning to neuromarketing, learn what will satisfy customers’ ever-evolving expectations. 

 

Sérgio Brodsky is the executive producer of Futurecast and a leading brand and foresight strategist.
Sherilyn Shackell is the Global CEO at The Marketing Academy.

 

Artwork:

Original illustrations and artwork by Tobi Laniyan.

Graph image an excerpt fromLead from the Future’ by Mark W. Johnson and Josh Suskewicz.