A year ago in these pages I described an emerging problem-set popping up in more and more conversations with senior executives of all stripes, and with board members in public, private and nonprofit companies: It was getting harder to align on what "good leadership" looked like staring into this next decade. Twelve months later, that problem has emerged from the wings and moved to center stage.
The title of this issue, "Leadership 2030," takes as its jumping-off point a position that a chapter of global history closed in the beginning of 2020. Along with it closed a chapter about business leadership, upon which were based many of our shared views on management effectiveness, leadership development, assessment and selection processes and the ways we measure an executive's impact.
So much of what we take for granted in this space came out of excellent work by a range of thinkers from Peter Drucker to Jim Collins, not to mention decades of IO psychology, data collected by search firms, management consultants, academics and other pattern recognizers. Collectively, we built a leadership industry, based in part on an increasingly shared set of ideas about what a great 20th century executive looks like.
From Past to Future
The thing is, we're not in the 20th century anymore. It just took us an extra couple decades to recognize that.
All that robust benchmarking, it turns out, rested on bedrock assumptions that were themselves fragile. Here are a few examples:
- Globalism is inevitable, making supply chains and transport of goods so reliable as to eliminate the need for redundant systems.
- Market forces are the surest way of spreading democracy, or at least the rule of law.
- Global financial systems, while imperfect, are effective at keeping money cheap and disruptions isolated either geographically or temporally.
- American democracy, with its separation of powers, its impartial electoral processes and its ability to police global transport lanes would—however messily—serve as a source of constancy in a world of change.
Among other implications of these and similar assumptions, the world of the last 70 years seemed to become an increasingly predictable place. Good CEOs offered to-the-penny guidance on quarterly earnings. International agreements made it easy for capital to follow cheap labor. And complex goods could be atomized for inexpensive production, then moved across borders multiple times before their eventual final assembly.
The future would certainly have its challenges, but in general, we were looking at a long period of slow GDP growth (even China's booming growth curve was expected to taper off over the course of a decade or two), and so the primary job of business leaders was to outgrow GDP, and out-innovate competitors.
Francis Fukuyama's book The End of History (University of Wales Press, 1992) projected a long corridor of relative sameness, and Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008) offered a layman's view of the same principles. One of Friedman's now-regretted maxims was that "No two countries with a McDonald's have ever gone to war with one another."
I'm not being remotely snarky about Fukuyama or Friedman's lack of futuristic precision—they were using the best data and analyses available at the time. And I think it's safe to say that few if any business leaders foresaw the conditions we are now navigating on the way to 2030.
In retrospect, the cracks in the assumptions listed above were already visible prior to 2020. Geopolitics were becoming less stable. The rule of law was under strain in America and elsewhere, and financial systems were creaking under various pressures. But viewed through the lens of our—and our grandparents', and their parents'—lived experience, those changes tended to feel like temporary wobbles. Surely, normalcy would return.
A Generational Jump
It has been widely noted that the pandemic accelerated the adoption of technology and flexible work arrangements by a decade or more in a period of weeks. This has become so obviously true that it's hard to read those words rather than skipping over them.
But what's noteworthy is a different pattern set triggered by the pandemic: Those underlying, baseline assumptions about stability and sameness didn't just hit pause for two years—they've been blown away. Just as technology leapt ahead, so have a cascading series of business and social norms. And we haven't really fully grappled with those yet.
A useful summary of our current moment in history is the economist Peter Zelhan's 2022 book, The End of the World Is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization (Harper Business). [It's important to note that he's not claiming the collapse of civilization—his title is daunting enough!] His analyses are thoughtful and meticulous, and his key point is that we need to challenge all of our assumptions about the way economies work. That's because the 70 years of stable systems we grew up with were an anomaly, and the messiness we're seeing today is much more what "normal" looks like if you get outside our direct lived experience and look across centuries, rather than decades. Except now we have nuclear weapons and AI and the Paris Climate Accord.
All this has significant implications for leadership, which are only beginning to be understood. In boardrooms and C-suites around the country and around the world, executives are asking questions like: How do existing business models change if capital stays expensive? How does supply chain theory have to be revised and updated if assembling goods across borders becomes patchier, or getting items transported around the world (say, getting grain across the Baltic) becomes fraught with risk? What defines a good CEO—or a good middle manager—when, in addition to employee wellness and business performance, executives are also responsible for commenting on state-level legislative policies that affect wide swaths of their employee base and on which employees themselves hold polarized views? And what if a country decides our company's goods or services pose a risk to national security?
So, again, what does good leadership mean now—the kind that guides us to 2030 and beyond? It's not the same as the past.
This is not a call for sackcloth and ashes. While, at the species level, we might pine for whatever we think of as normal, this is a time to raise our eyes to the horizon and look for opportunities. We are innovators. We are adapters. How we build leaders now, how we leverage technology, how we build resilience into our organizational fiber—these are exciting questions. But they rely on our looking ahead—to 2030 and beyond—and imagining a new set of assumptions. There's no retreating to the past.
David Reimer, CEO of the ExCo Group, a senior leadership development firm