Leadership qualities tend to be timeless. It’s the reason we spend so much time looking back through history at the women and men who led successful businesses, governments, and social initiatives to pinpoint the common traits and skills that made them great. The thinking goes that, if we can emulate these women and men, we will be successful leaders too.

However, something fundamental has changed.

Welcome to the 21st Century, a place and time that is certainly similar to the past in many ways, but one that is also extremely different. Throughout history, we have never seen the volatility, complexity, and transformation that we are seeing today, and this sea-change has left us all feeling much less empowered and decisive than ever before. Just how rapid and chaotic is the change that we are experiencing today in comparison to the change we encountered in previous eras? As innovation pioneer Peter Diamandis has noted,

“The first technological steps — sharp edges, fire, the wheel — took tens of thousands of years. For people living in this era, there was little noticeable technological change in even a thousand years. By 1000 A.D., progress was much faster and a paradigm shift required only a century or two. In the 19th century, we saw more technological change than in the nine centuries preceding it. Then in the first 20 years of the 20th century, we saw more advancement than in all of the 19th century. Now, paradigm shifts occur in only a few years’ time.

Of course, this exponentially accelerating speed and magnitude of change is not relegated only to technology. The unprecedented shifts seen in population decline, migration to cities, climate change, localized currencies, decentralized learning, experiential consumption, contingent labor, and many other drivers of change are radically altering the landscape of work, education, and our daily lives. This colliding and uncertain landscape has our collective heads spinning.

Enter today’s leader—an individual with an even greater need to grasp the nature and impact of change than all of those amazing women and men who made their mark on history. While many of the leadership gurus from the past were penning their legendary ideas about how to win friends and influence people, the environment around them was fairly constant. And the advice that they have handed down to us was formulated during a time when governments, industries, businesses, and people reacted in a much more consistent fashion. However, this is no longer the case. Consistency is a luxury in a world where discontinuities and disruption are the new normal.

You can certainly search the web for recent articles on the most important skills that every great leader needs to succeed, and you will find many wonderful and proven qualities such as honesty, delegation, collaboration, empathy, creativity, communication, inspiration, confidence, problem-solving, driving results, and more. However, think about all of these leadership skills from the vista of a constantly changing world.

  • Honesty, empathy and communication are important, but how do we effectively promote a culture of openness, transparency, and understanding when everyone is unsure of where our organization stands or where it is headed? When the world around us is in flux, these lines of communication and perception are in flux as well.
  • Collaboration and delegation are vital skills in any era, but who should be included in that collaboration, how do we successfully build and sustain that collaboration, and what are the most critical tasks that ultimately need to be delegated to ensure a thriving organization? When we are being bombarded by disruption and ambiguity, what type of talent do we need to cultivate in order to build adaptive and resilient teams, and what functions and responsibilities should we assign in order to safeguard our organization from becoming outdated and antiquated?
  • Creativity, inspiration, and confidence are skills that we want everyone to have throughout our organizations, but how do we inspire people when we aren’t certain about our direction? How can creativity truly flourish when there is a lack of knowledge about unfolding landscapes of change, as well as the possibilities and opportunities that may exist just over the horizon? How could we hope to instill confidence in others when uncertainty grips our own hearts and minds?

Being a problem-solver and driving results for the organization are crucial for producing quick wins and reaching long-range goals in business, government, and social initiatives, but how do we do this when things are becoming increasingly complex? Are we solving the right problems and achieving the right results when today’s “unknown unknowns” are manifesting outside of our organizations and industries as tomorrow’s game-changing products, unique services, and market-morphing innovations?

In many ways, today’s leader has no precedent or benchmark for the skills that will help them to navigate our emerging landscape of unparalleled change. Those who successfully lead humanity forward in the 21st Century will be the ones who write the book that redefines leadership in this brave new world.

So, how do we begin writing a new narrative about the most important leadership qualities needed in the unfamiliar confines of a post-normal terrain? Fortunately, the answer is not hidden in a stack of research articles that are awaiting peer review, nor is it yet to be discovered by some up-and-coming leadership guru. As a matter of fact, the “must have” leadership skill of the 21st Century is the direct response to effectively managing, harnessing, and leveraging the constant change that is all around us. In order to combat fear, we demonstrate courage. When those around us are discouraged, we practice motivation. Likewise, when we are presented with a world of volatility, uncertainty, and change, the answer should be simple: we need to learn the skill of foresight!

According to famed futurist Richard Slaughter,1 foresight—or futures thinking as it is called by some—is:

“the ability to create and maintain a high-quality, coherent and functional forward view, and to use the insights arising in useful organizational ways… foresight is not the ability to predict the future. It is a human attribute that allows us to weigh up pros and cons, to evaluate different courses of action and to invest in possible futures… the process of strategic foresight encompasses broadening our perceptions of what future possibilities may unfold and therefore, considering various situations beyond our normal line of sight.”

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Think Like A Futurist To Be Prepared For The Totally Unexpected,” technology columnist Christopher Mims expounded on the importance of this “functional forward view” for today’s leaders:

“The art and science of futuring is fast becoming a necessary skill, where we read signals, see trends and ruthlessly test our own assumptions… Futuring is no longer just for futurists… Like the ability to make a budget or think critically, it’s a skill that anyone who has to make long-range decisions should, and can, acquire.”

Mims understands that foresight is “fast becoming a necessary skill” because, like the leaders who have to deal with the new landscape of ever-increasing complexity and change on a moment-by-moment basis, he knows that success means being continually adaptive and transformative. Being able to map “various situations beyond our normal line of sight” grants us the ability to pivot toward the future and create it in the here and now. And, once foresight has been adopted as a critical mindset and philosophy for both surviving and thriving in the 21st Century, then all of those timeless leadership qualities take on a new level of relevance and potential.

  • Foresight helps us to know where our organization is headed and allows us to map how we can successfully arrive at our preferred future. When this happens our intentions (honesty), understanding (empathy), and level of knowledge transfer (communication) are expanded beyond the boundaries of our personal biases and assumptions.
  • Foresight helps us to identify and nurture the capability to be flexible and multi-dimensional in the people around us. When this happens, our collaborative efforts will be open to more than the traditional ideas and practices within our limited scope of activity, and this clarifies the functions and responsibilities that we will need to delegate for both short and long-range success.
  • Foresight helps us to explore a wide range of near and far-term alternatives, possibilities and opportunities, meaning that the storehouse of creativity in our organizations will be amplified ten, a hundred, and a thousand times beyond what it is capable of today. Inspiration will become less about what our organization accomplished in the past—or even what our core strengths are in the present that allow us to be competitive—and more about the amazing things that we will be able to create moving forward.

Foresight helps us to pull the future into the present, and transition from a position of reactive disruption to proactive transformation. The “unknown unknowns” in other organizations become our “future maps,” empowering us to build strategy, processes, and results that answer the grandest challenges of our time.

  1. Slaughter, R. (1995). The foresight principle . Westport: Praeger.


Frank Spencer

Frank Spencer is the Founding Principal and Creative Director of The Futures School. He holds a Master of Arts in Strategic Foresight from Regent University. He has worked on Strategic Foresight projects for companies such as Kraft, Mars, Marriott, and The Walt Disney Company. Read more.