Systems thinking, empathy and resilience: the crucial skills for tomorrow’s leaders

On 16th June every year, South Africa celebrates our youth. We remember how they rose together in 1976 to protest against the injustices of apartheid, many of them dying for the cause. Their action and their sacrifice have played an integral role in the progress that South African democracy has made since then. 

The world celebrated World Youth Skills Day this week. To mark this important day, we examine the skills that we believe young people – our emerging future leaders – will need to cultivate to thrive in an uncertain global context and increasingly volatile environment.

For hundreds of years, since the dawn of the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism, the qualities credited for the achievement of success and strong leadership have remained largely constant. In a time of warfare and in the face of increasing market competition, people sought out national or business leaders who were perceived to be ‘strong’, decisive, who ‘led from the front’ and who had the courage of their convictions, regardless of what others thought of those convictions and indeed regardless of whether those convictions were best for the majority.

But the world has changed, thanks largely to the technical revolution and the rise of the world wide web. We are now more connected than ever before thanks to social media, smartphones, rolling news, cheap travel and global trade. This connectivity has led to increased globalisation, which means that all the world’s opportunities – and problems – are connected. 

Events and trends of 2020 have shone a spotlight on that connectedness by the very fact that they threaten and affect the entire world. The ongoing denial of, and inaction around, climate change is driving the very real threat of environmental catastrophe. This is a challenge that is global in its very nature and one that must be tackled in a joined-up, global way: it is no good one country slashing its carbon emissions if another is building coal-powered factories. 

The outbreak of coronavirus demands an equally global response. This pathogen, which probably emerged from a market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has led to more than 13 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 across the world. It was fanned by globalisation, carried across borders and continents by international travellers, and therefore it must be addressed globally. We cannot continue to close our borders in a bid to keep the virus out – the globalised nature of the world makes that an unrealistic long-term solution, so countries have to work together to control the virus. 

After months of headlines focuses on the coronavirus pandemic, it was the murder of a man in the US which finally moved the virus off the front pages. In June George Floyd, a black man, was killed by a policeman in Minneapolis, and a bystander caught the whole crime on camera. While 50 years ago that news may have stayed local – or been reported in clipped facts – in the age of social media and rolling news channels, this devastating injustice was witnessed in full colour by millions, if not billions. It has reinvigorated the human rights movement with the growing call, resounding across the globe, demanding universal recognition that Black Lives Matter. Like the growing climate movement, the Black Lives Matter movement seeks to ensure that the new normal cannot incorporate old injustices. It seeks to blow apart the denials, the bias, the inequality that has prevailed. As Otto Scharmer says, it is demanding that we look towards our blind spot. Emphasising that “denial is not a strategy”, Scharmer identifies three dimensions which inhibit our really connecting:

Not seeing what is going on;

Not feeling what I do see;

Not acting on what I see and feel.

The multiple challenges we face today – often known as ‘Super Wicked Problems’ – all connected and all influencing, impacting and increasing each other for as long as they aren’t addressed – mean that the very nature of life and of the global landscape is what is termed ‘VUCA’ – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. In such a world, today’s young people are the ones who will grow to lead, and we have a responsibility to prepare them for that role. But with an estimated 65% of the children who started school in 2015 eventually having jobs that don’t currently exist, how do we train them for roles that we can’t currently envisage, and for leadership within that paradigm? 

One thing is certain, however: the future will need a very different type of leader. Leaders will not only have to think differently so that they can address solutions to our biggest problems. They will have to ‘do’ differently too. They will need to be collaborative and able to respond to rolling crises – not just isolated challenges. They will need to transform the VUCA of the old paradigm into the VUCA of opportunity – vision, understanding, clarity and agility. These attributes reflect and form the basis of the new mindsets and skills that a new generation of leaders will need, for example collaboration, comfort in crisis, clarity, systematic problem-solving, empathy and resilience.

Central to the new skillset and mindset will be a systems view of the world; an understanding of complexity, of regeneration and of resilience. Leaders will need to understand the big picture and to see that everything – people, planet and ecosystems – is connected. They will have to harness this deep understanding to unlock the potential of systems to drive lasting change. In the past, expertise and experience, focus and specialisation were accepted as critical to success. Now, the reverse is increasingly becoming the case. More important than experience and expertise in one area is a willingness to unlearn and relearn, so that we can be agile and responsive to changing demands. A foundational, principle-based understanding of complexity and systems necessitates a more generalist approach; generalists are able to understand interconnectivity, the broader context in which decisions are made and, importantly, the impact of seemingly unrelated developments on one another.

Some of the most important skills for leaders of the future will be ‘people skills’. Whilst these are too often dismissed as ‘soft’, there is increasing acceptance and understanding that what distinguishes the human condition from artificial intelligence is empathy: the ability to step into the shoes of another person, to understand their feelings and perspectives and to use that to guide our actions. Empathetic leaders who not only understand, but relish the fact that not all people are like them, will be able to bring more people on side. And that will allow them to tackle the systemic issues like racism and inequality that themselves cause problems.

Above all, the leaders of the future will need to be resilient, responsive and agile. Resilience does not mean passively enduring. It means adapting, responding to change, and being agile so as to relearn, retrain, reskill, respond and renew. As the rate of change makes prediction impossible, resilience will be key. That old cliché is true: the only certainty is uncertainty and change is the only constant. It follows therefore that the only way to thrive in the future is to be able to cope with uncertainty and change. Resilient, flexible leaders will be able to identify the skills they need at the time they’re needed, therefore managing themselves in the context of change. Leaders who have the resilience to respond nimbly will be able to think about the bigger picture, and put the wellbeing of people and planet at the heart of their decisions. 

There are some role models to inspire the successful leaders of tomorrow. Many are drawn from history – Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, who we celebrate this Saturday. There are also some contemporary leaders who demonstrate many of the skills that will be at the heart of effective leadership in the future: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, for example, has skilfully and compassionately led her country through the coronavirus pandemic and the aftermath of the Christchurch terror attack last year, and has been lauded around the world for her openness, honesty and empathy

At Routes to Resilience, our core purpose is to help young adults and professionals to develop the skills they need to lead sustainable change in the future – to be the sustainable, compassionate leaders that the world so desperately needs. Our programmes help participants develop a deep understanding of systems thinking and of sustainability; they learn to think critically, communicate clearly and to view themselves as an integral part of the systems in which they operate, whether that’s the workplace, society or the planet. Above all, we seek to help them future-proof their lives and careers by helping them to build their resilience, flexibility and grit so they can adapt to evolving futures throughout their lives and rise to meet the challenges they face.

You can discover more about our Sygnature Award programme for teenagers here, and our Resilient Futures programme for young professionals here. Please get in touch if you would like to find out more.