The Final Frontier Between Our Ears

Next-generation leaders need to work on the space between their ears to adopt a new set of ABCs so they may boldly go where no one has gone before.

If space is the final frontier, this edition of Training compellingly argues it is actually the space between our ears that requires deeper exploration.

Over the last two decades, the Worldwide Web has blanketed our planet with a digital nervous system, fundamentally and permanently altering the way we connect, communicate, coordinate, collaborate, and take collective action.

A year ago, at Duke CE, we embarked on a journey of discovery with more than 40 global chief executives to understand how this seismic shift was affecting their businesses and their approach to leadership.

These leaders characterized their current context as a new normal of constant disequilibrium where the challenges they face are less predictable and the knowledge bases they draw from are less reliable. They said it feels like they are navigating permanent white water where the volume, variety, and velocity of issues and information are creating ongoing tensions and tradeoffs that need to be handled in real time. The principal challenge these leaders described in dealing with these ongoing tensions is rooted in cultivating the ability to become precise perceivers, subtle sensemakers, and careful choreographers.

To become precise perceivers, leaders emphasized the need to frame unfamiliar situations with a beginner’s mindset. They cautioned that holding on to past world views would limit a leader’s ability to ask insightful questions about the future, and they warned against becoming over-reliant on applying old routines to address new and novel problems.

The key challenge with perceiving is that our brains are friendly with familiarity and pre-wired to fall into default when placed under stress. To become practiced perceivers, leaders must consciously work to rewire their brains to avoid falling into default when dealing with the stress of a new normal of constant disequilibrium.

To become subtle sensemakers, leaders told us that thinking systemically is more important than ever and that no single person can understand the actions and interactions in a system as connected and complex as the one we inhabit today. They also said that calculated trial and error—experimenting, learning, and adapting in real time—is critical, and that tolerance for making mistakes and resilience in recovering from them is the new cycle of value creation in today’s world.

The key challenge with sensemaking is that it requires a different kind of logic. Today’s complex problems require the application of abductive logic. Abduction is the process of seeking out data that might contradict preconceived ideas and existing assumptions and then trying to make sense of it. This often requires leaders to take logical leaps of faith absent complete data or confidence in the outcome.

To become careful choreographers, leaders stressed the need to recognize that the more connected we become, the less control we have. They said that hierarchies are becoming “wirearchies” where influence trumps position power. They note that industry ecosystems and the organizations within them now are operating as networks that need to be worked at multiple levels to catalyze action in a particular direction.

The key challenge with choreography is that it requires new ways of influencing that rely on a deep appreciation for context and the ability to coalesce and catalyze collectives of individuals that reside outside the leader’s sphere of control.

If space is the final frontier, it is clear that nextgeneration leaders need to adopt a new set of ABCs:

Avoid falling into default thinking

Become comfortable with taking logical leaps of faith

Counteract the urge to use position power as opposed to influence

In so doing, they may boldly go where no one has gone before!

Tony O’Driscoll is regional managing director of Duke CE in Singapore, where he focuses on identifying and implementing next-generation learning strategies and approaches that accelerate the development of Leadership Sense- Abilities in this rapidly growing part of the world.