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A Matter Of Debate

The Need To Think The Unthinkable

Business leaders, including many top CEOs, are not mentally prepared for the scale and pace of disruption they now face. Without prompting, they themselves use the words ‘scared’, ‘fear’ and ‘overwhelmed.’

They have revealed their fears candidly in a recently published research project based on hundreds of confidential one-to-one meetings, interviews and follow-up conversations over the past four years in C-Suites and with top public servants. The database of confidential transcripts total over 2,500 pages. These have been digitally analysed and the findings independently reviewed.

The key finding: the conformity that got many leaders to the top often disqualifies them from understanding the enormity of what’s now happening and what to do about it. A ‘New Normal’ has been emerging.  The pace and nature of change is akin to what happens in wartime, yet we are at peace. It defies conventional thinking and institutions. The glue of conformity is fast coming unstuck. Those slow to adapt will perish. Those CEOs who embrace the inevitability of unthinkables and unpalatables have a significantly greater chance of gripping, then handling disruption.

We are living in an Age of Unthinkables that are shaking leaders to the core. But in many respects the events are not Unthinkables, In reality they are Unpalatables; the evidence and warning signs are usually there. But the conformity of leadership thinking means CEOs often don’t see or believe them.

The aim and demand is for a new leaders’ community and process. We have been sharing the findings and implications in closed door sessions with C Suites and their teams. The key is to embolden and empower leaders so they can feel comfortable with this new reality and thrive on change.

The imperative is even greater because of the existential threat from the NextGen. Many of them are frustrated and often angry with the leadership culture and practices they see. Many don’t want to become leaders of conventional organisations.

The primary need for the current cohort of corporate leaders is to accept the scale of unthinkables with a new courage and humility. CEOs must open their eyes and accept the inevitability of Unpalatables – the ‘black elephants’, lurking unseen but threatening and viewed as too difficult to handle.

We argue there must be a new culture, behaviour and mindset for every leader or aspiring leader.  They also need  to display new courage and humility, and realise that disruption is not a blip. Things won’t return to the apparent comfort zone of the way things were. We are in a New Normal.

There are no easy solutions: how could there be in a world of such unprecedented and unexpected disruption? After working with top entrepreneurs, corporates and leaders we have developed a five step process. It is a series of stages through which leaders and their organisation can travel to find their own individual solutions.

  1. Status quo. This is where most businesses currently find themselves in. Conformity, short-term thinking stop them from understanding and embracing the scale of the disruption and what to do about
  2. Audit the external reality. Understand and embrace the new realities of the extraordinary, disrupted world we now live
  3. Audit the internal reality. Understand and define frankly the nature and impact of what confronts you as an entrepreneur. What behaviour, cultures, mindsets and structures prevent you and your organisation dealing successfully with the new, fast evolving external and internal challenges you face?
  4. Address your With a new awareness of the scale of what you face, engage your colleagues at all levels,  especially the Next Generation. The goal:  to discover and scope your own ways to deal with disruption and change. Assess your own abilities as a leader to embrace disruption and adapt to it.
  5. Thrive on There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Through these five progressions this process of adaptation must be iterative, loosely structured, flexible and inspiring. It must become a core way through which you and your organisation think and work.

This is not only a process worth embracing. It is a process that must be embraced in order to overcome the new, fast-evolving existential threats from a scale of disruption whose scale and pace no-one can predict with any accuracy. In this world of unthinkables, leaders must be brave and shed the conformist thinking that got them to the top. At high-speed they must recalibrate and use leadership skills in an adaptable way. They should also embrace Purpose and Values.

CEOs need prepare for the scale and nature of transformational technologies coming down the track at warp speed. They include Artificial Intelligence (AI), genomics and quantum computing. One top executive told us in an anxious voice that these are already “invading our existence”. They may be that unpalatable. But they are not unthinkable. The process of change requires self-interrogation and a willingness to change oneself and one’s organisation. It isn’t easy. One leader likened it to ‘eating an elephant in a single mouthful’. It is essential and there is no time to be lost.


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