What can you do as a human leader that an algorithm can’t? Provide realistic hope.

“Leaders in the future will be in the seeding hope business, whether they like it or not,” according to futurist Bob Johansen in his latest book, The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything.

Hope has always been necessary for life. As Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu observed, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”

And darkness abounds even for those who are generally optimistic.

The future is laced with fear, Bob pointed out in a recent conversation with Mercedes Martin and me about his book and how it relates to sustainability, diversity, and leadership.

Bob’s book closely links with the findings from the executive interviews that Mercedes and I have been conducting for the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) Lab. Later this month, Mercedes will travel there to present our findings plus our model for helping leaders improve how they learn, develop and prepare for the uncertain work world they face. (More about that after the Lab.)

Bob, who’s also a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, told us that the world will be increasingly turbulent over the next decade. He explained that three extreme and unprecedented threats—global climate disruption, cyber terrorism and weaponized synthetic biology—can damage the planet, humans and our economic models.

“It will be up to leaders to keep people hopeful and optimistic; in return they will be rewarded with gritty people who will see adversity and change as an opportunity rather than a challenge,” Bob explained.

So how do leaders seed realistic hope – especially when many humans may feel threatened by being replaced by machines and technology?

One way to start is to apply leadership practices based on neuroscience. Three actions to take include:

  1. Share a compelling story about where you want to go that appeals to peoples’ sense of purpose. Express your vision in a story, which will help you be clear without promising certainty that you can’t deliver. As Bob explains, great stories “encourage people to engage.” Stories are easy to remember. By contrast, certainty is usually expressed in rules, and Bob maintains that rigid rules can get leaders in a lot of trouble in the VUCA world because of the high degree of uncertainty and volatility.
  1. Be positive and supportive to put people in a “toward” state so they won’t feel fearful and threatened. The brain is designed to minimize danger and maximize reward. Threat is faster acting, stronger and longer lasting than reward. When we are fearful or feel threatened—perceived or actual—threat takes over our attention. It becomes very hard to refocus our brain. Furthermore, individuals in this state are less open to new ideas and information, less creative, and more inclined to make errors. However, don’t go to the other extreme and sugarcoat things, which will hurt your credibility and trust. Instead be realistic. You might not have achieved your goals “yet” (by the way, a brain-friendly word to use). You should be able to find bright spots to highlight. Celebrate those small wins, which will reassure people to continue doing those behaviors. And at a minimum, you can work to radiate positive energy throughout the work day, moderating your peaks and valleys.
  1. Urge people to practice good self-care, and role model good habits yourself. This involves eating well, exercising, getting at least seven hours of sleep a night, and connecting regularly with friends and family, preferably in-person. All of these actions help us think better as well as protect against other short and long-term health problems. We have to recognize that humans are not machines, and cannot run 24/7 like machines can. Many researchers are concerned that the constant low to mid-level stress many of us in the first world deal with daily is taking a toll on our health and well-being. We have to recognize that humans are not machines.

In fact, “creating and sustaining positive energy” is one of the five new literacies from Bob’s new book. He told Mercedes and me that he believes executives will need greater focus, stamina, and resilience in the future, which will require them to become “super fit.” And for them to lead successfully, they also need to create space and time for the people they lead to “balance their own physical, mental, and spiritual energy.”

Based on our experiences applying neuroscience, Bob’s book that challenges leaders to learn way ways of working, and our work, Mercedes and I are hopeful and optimistic about the future. We’re excited about what we’re creating to help executives develop more relevant ways to learn, lead and work in today’s VUCA world. If you’d like us to contact you when we’re ready to share, let me know.

Meanwhile, how about taking time to practice better self-care to make it easier to be more hopeful?

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