Nobody knows the future with certainty. We can, however, identify ongoing patterns of change.
- Alvin Toffler
Standing where we are now and looking forward another 20 years to 2040, we expect behaviors and practices will change as dramatically as they have in the past two decades, if not faster. Much of that evolution will occur because of societal powershifts, changing organizational models, and new definitions of wealth that are taking hold now.
Industrial Age models and organizations are shuttering, replaced by Information Age models. As that happens, what we hold up as the gold standard for contemporary leadership models looks very different than what reigned supreme at the turn of the century. Rather than hierarchical, heavily structured, male-led structures, we have more holacratic and democratic structures that encourage idea sharing and collaboration. As this transformation takes place, the face of leadership is evolving as well. To some extent, those changes are demographic. In larger extent, they are based on value systems and mental models. Those organizations prepared to value, educate, and empower their leaders will be well-positioned to succeed.
As we look to the future, we expect who leaders are will endure. The fundamental soft skills that characterize great leaders will persist -- the courage to make tough decisions, effective and authentic communication, clarity about risks and growth opportunities, and the ability to inspire groups of others to achieve a shared vision. What we expect to see is a change in how leaders behave.
The 2040 situational snapshot
From a purely demographic standpoint in 2040, we expect to live (and work) longer. By then, most Baby Boomers will be retired. This large population will be aging and in their end-of-life phase, pushing boundaries and driving new frontiers in health care and social security systems. GenX’ers will be in their 60’s and represent the new workforce ‘knowledge holders.’ Some will be starting to retire. The enormous, impactful Millennial generation will be in the height of their career while thinking about their (financial) future, caring for Boomer parents, and dreaming about empty nesting. These will be the ‘big’ bosses and tenured employees.
It’s reasonable to think that Millennials will be flanked and supported by Gen Zs, by then between 30 and 45, and living squarely in their prime working and family rearing age. This is a population of digital (mobile) natives who could operate a smartphone before they could walk or tie their shoes. They are used to – and expect – disintermediation and instant gratification. And they are adept at using platforms like social media to curate and cultivate a personal brand on their path to leadership.
While they show signs of being financially conservative, Gen Z -- like their Millennial predecessors -- may not define wealth in terms of dollars. We see many emerging leaders defining wealth in terms of freedom, purpose, experience, and flexibility. Increasing numbers of mainstream organizations are instituting collaboration platforms like Slack and Google Docs to accommodate desires for ‘perks’ like flexible hours and remote work. There’s every reason to believe that emerging leaders will interact, lead, and run companies even more progressively.
Laying a 20-year path to the future
Postulating about the future of organizations, populations, and wealth is not just entertaining. It is vitally important to a future-focused leadership strategy. We must recognize that our current mental models may be antiquated by 2040 -- some, like thinking in terms of virtual vs. physical or digital vs. analog already are. We can learn anything and lead from anywhere. Over the next two decades, we can expect to see this reality unfold in a host of ways, changing our views on things like wealth, education, and our collective sense of self.
- Wealth and value on the path to 2040 likely will be less about exchanging monetary currency and more about customer-driven prosumerism. With the role of the ‘influencer,’ for example, we already see people using social media to shill for products and receiving payment in the form of those products (or discounts). Even discounts may not be dollars – a college student may work the front desk at her favorite yoga studio in exchange for reduced mat fees. We already widely expect that if we accept cookies or give our email to a company online, they will reward that personal data with access to value. We see people choosing jobs and making purchase decisions based on demonstrated organizational values. And it’s possible that in the future, employers will provide room and board to employees as part of more competitive compensation packages in regions with a high cost of living.
- Personalization will evolve as the Internet of Things (IoT) continues its spread, and (most of us) mitigate our discomfort with that ‘big brother is listening’ realization by demanding that the world runs more smoothly because of the connectivity. Privacy and trust are rising in influence on consumers and organizational brand, rapidly becoming table stakes. For emerging leaders, that exchange may take the form of elevated control, efficiency, customer intimacy, knowledge about others, and ethical responsibility.
- Continuing its shift from learning ‘what’ to know to learning ‘how’ to know, education (particularly in non-traditional forms) may be one of the most important factors in building a new leadership profile. Particularly as Gen Z and Gen A move into adulthood, rapid, deep, AI-enabled learning is an accepted norm. We’re moving from educating the ‘best and brightest’ to expecting curious, collaborative, human-focused workers to access knowledge and offering them application-based training like apprenticeships.
“Individuals need to own their own development and career path. It’s a jungle gym, and not a ladder anymore, which means it’s very self-directed, including cross-pollinated skills and experiences.”
~ Nancy Ham, CEO Web PT
- Authentic leadership has been a focus in recent decades. As we move down this path toward 2040, the ability to figure out whether the posted persona or the true person is the more real one will be an important capability for those leaders in charge of spotting, hiring, and retaining team members. There will be a rise in focus on building high integrity teams, authentic team members and collaborators. As Nancy Ham has observed, “Leaders emerge given the situation. The CEO communicates the vision and sets direction, then self-directed teams and scrums do the rest.”
Steps toward the future
For leaders, building and maintaining a structure and culture in which innovation advances rapidly and the organization is fast-moving and humanistic, begins with questions like:
- What leadership style will work best for your organization in this new, fluid environment – and what needs to change?
- How will your organization need to respond with a more distributed, empowered workforce and customer base?
- What are the immutable values, behaviors, or habits in your organization that have and will continue to endure?
What we’re describing is already familiar. While it’s not yet the norm, it’s evolving. Many industries and organizations have been in transition for decades. As Industrial Age models and organizations shutter, Information Age models take their place. In this mid-late Third Wave era, it will be those leaders with a penchant for courage, authenticity and humanity, and an operating model that runs on innovation flexibility and agility. Let’s lay the foundation and make way.