The world will be increasingly marked by change and at ever faster speeds. Future leaders will need new skills.
The three years from 2020 to 2023 will be remembered as a turning point for humanity.
2020’s opening act was the explosion of the Covid-19 pandemic which left indelible changes on how mankind organises their home, works and sets life priorities. Almost exactly two years later, Putin sent troops into Ukraine in a blatant “up yours” to international law and its defenders – countries more militarily and economically advanced than Russia.
2023 brought the promise and terror of Artificial Intelligence (AI) with the commercial launch of ChatGPT, a self-learning software that could steal our jobs – from coding to law to journalism. AI is already being used for more sinister purposes like creating deepfake pornographic material. Left unchecked, it will wreak a terrible cost, including setting back gender equality by decades.
Each of these is a major development, with significant knock-on effects yet to be fully seen. We are in a new era of seismic change.
Singapore, a small open economy, is a price taker on a lot of these issues. We depend on global companies using Singapore as a base and must align to international business practices. We are too small to command a seat at the top table in negotiations with tech giants, let alone international powers. Our key strength has been the ability to stay head of the commercial and educational curve, and maintain our geopolitical relevance and influence by being an international law-abiding honest broker.
Singapore’s education system has traditionally used academic grades as an indicator of future performance. Smart people will make better workers, as the thinking goes. We continue to celebrate our country’s standing in “hard” subjects like mathematics and science (we took top spot in 2022 in an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study), but intellectual achievement is not a reliable predictor of future performance, especially in today’s operating environment.
In a world where the increasing speed of change is the only certainty (so much so that the term “VUCA” has been coined to describe the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity that will define us) a new set of skills is required.
A complex world with rapidly shifting goal posts and no straightforward solutions requires agile leaders.
Singaporeans can be justifiably proud of how our nation came through the pandemic, and while we owed a lot to previous administrations building up our reserves and a populace that was largely compliant with government regulations, what made the real difference was leadership.
The government learned from our SARS experience, stayed on top of the science and crafted Covid policies that they constantly tweaked. This helped lead us out of the crisis faster, with less loss of human life and an improved international standing, than many other developed countries.
On the corporate front, seismic shifts will come from rapid technological advances, geopolitical uncertainty and a new “here-to-stay” higher interest rate environment. Post-Covid, how the world works has also changed and 2024 will see new fair employment laws being passed, and the now fluffy flexible work arrangements hard-coded.
Corporate leaders will need to not just respond to the changing operating environment but also project further developments down the road. Business leaders cannot just be agile reactively, but forward-looking too.
In order for leadership to be followed, it must first be trusted. No one will trust a leader they do not know. That requires the courage to be authentic and for leaders to display values and, often, vulnerability. No business journey is ever completely smooth sailing so a leader will need to know when, and how, to admit mistakes.
In 2014, Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, was asked for advice for women seeking a raise, at a Women in Computing conference. “It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise… It’s good karma. It will come back,” he said. This brought on strong criticism which, to his credit, he faced head-on. “I answered that question completely wrong,” Nadella wrote in an apology after the incident.
Increasingly, the values of a corporate have an impact on customers’ buying choices. These values are better communicated via corporate leaders walking the talk, than via slick product advertisements. When crisis hits – and a VUCA world will bring more crises – leaders must communicate the company’s position relatably before they can inspire others to take their lead.
A leader is better able to cope with change that doesn’t take them by surprise. Curiosity seems a strange skill to endorse but I believe it is one of the most underrated qualities.
A curious person is necessarily humble – because they know that they don’t know everything. They are open to change and are constantly horizon-scanning. They continue working to adapt and improve. None of these abilities – which everyone will agree a good leader needs – is possible without curiosity. The leader you least want to follow is one who appears to have all the answers, even to questions that have not yet been asked.
Math and science are necessary skills in a Financial Controller or Chief Technical Officer, but these hard skills are the most easily replaced by AI, which even in its nascent state is already bettering its human counterparts in computer coding.
Machines will master other machines but are less accomplished at reading, interpreting and predicting human action, which is often not rational. A good leader will recognise the need to be adept at human relations, which is why stakeholder engagement is becoming ever more important in the corporate arena.
This is not about promoting the “nice guy” to top leadership. It is a pragmatic realisation that an understanding of human psychology and group dynamics is crucial to lead a diverse and independent-thinking workforce and manage an increasingly demanding customer base.
Needed: A New Form of Performance Legitimacy
I am encouraged that Singapore is re-looking the definitions of meritocracy and success. This is not an act of charity to those who are less academically gifted. In the world we are entering, we need to develop fresh skills. The metrics for measuring leadership in our version of meritocracy must also adapt.
Corporate succession planning should prize lateral critical thinking as much as it does domain expertise.
We have discussed VUCA. Some commentators say we have moved beyond that construct to one which is Brittle, Anxious, Non-linear and Incomprehensible. BANI is the new zeitgeist, and it promises even more volatility and complexity. In human capital reliant Singapore, it is adapt or perish.