Are You a forward-thinking Leader?

“Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation. We cross what I call a “divide.” Within a few short decades, society rearranges itself-its worldview; its basic values; its social and political structure; its art; its key institutions. Fifty years later, there is a new world. And the people born then cannot even imagine the world in which their grandparents lived and into which their own parents were born. We are currently living through just such a transformation.”
Peter Drucker – “Post-Capitalist Society” 1993

Every current and aspiring leader today would do well to read Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society – The Internet of Things, The Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism.  (If you cannot find time to read the book, this presentation nicely suffices:

Rifkin posits that we are in the midst of a third industrial revolution; one that will completely disrupt the capitalist system. He reviews the first industrial revolution, that began in Britain in the late 18th century, where radical changes in the textile industry resulted in the ‘modern’ factory. According to the author, it was enabled by a convergence of paradigm shifts in three critical economic components: energy (coal/steam), communication technology (steam powered printing presses) and transportation (steam locomotive and railways).

The second industrial revolution came in the early 20th century, where we again witnessed seismic changes in those same three areas: energy (oil), communication (telephone, and later radio and television), and transportation, (the combustion engine and subsequent automobile).

Both of these revolutions embodied the drastic transformations Drucker refers to in the quote above. Literally everything changed.

The third industrial revolution, already upon us, is driven by a similar shift in technology in those three crucial fields, but is considerably more powerful and far-reaching because it is creating Internets: a communication network, an energy network, and a transportation and logistics network, all of which will be further connected to each other through the Internet of Things. These Internets accelerate the rate and depth of change far beyond those of earlier experiences.

Three concepts in particular strike the reader:

  1. Rifkin explains in detail how this revolution is reducing the marginal cost of many goods to near zero (how much does it cost to send an email? to download a song?) and this will eventually render the fundamental concepts of capitalism (productivity, profit maximization, market supply and demand) irrelevant. What happens to a profit motivated system when goods are essentially free? (Think: why buy fossil fuels when the sun powers my home and car for free, and cleanly?)
  2. This is not solely futurist musings about what might happen; Rifkin’s consulting firm is already working under contract with the German government to help prepare their infrastructure for the third revolution, and after reading the book, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang adopted it as the blueprint for the country’s 13th Five Year Plan. (1)
  3. If Rifkin’s claims are true (as evidence tends to indicate), why are we not reading of collaborative efforts among global governments to anticipate and prepare for the massive retraining and adjustment that will be required to transition the global population through the shift?

In other words, where is the forward-thinking leadership that these times demand?

It may be absent on the political front, but if you are leading or aspire to lead any organization, being aware of and understanding the forces behind this third industrial revolution is a must. If you are not forward-thinking on behalf of your organization, you leave it vulnerable to the severe buffeting forces that the third revolution brings.

Forward thinking requires, among other things, incessant and creative questioning: How will 3D printing affect our industry? What are the implications of radical weather on our strategic plan? Is our current pace and quality of innovation sufficient to ensure our organization will survive let alone thrive? Are we crystal clear about what our organization will look like ten years from now? Can we at least be a bit clearer?

For all leaders, it is so easy (and sometimes necessary) to get stuck in Covey’s ‘Important and Urgent’ quadrant 1, putting out the proverbial fires, but to be most effective, to be forward-thinking leaders, we must jump to Quadrant 3: Important and not Urgent. Scan horizons, seek new trends, anticipate opportunities and sidestep threats. That is what forward-thinking leaders do. Today, things move so quickly that we must straddle both quadrants, which yet again emphasizes the need for effective teams, engaged employees and trust. Here are a few simple actions you might find helpful in preparing for the Third Industrial Revolution:

  • Read the book! (or at least watch the video)
  • Systematically look outside the organization: convene a group of your best employees and decide what ‘Outside Our Organization’ trends, concepts, and innovations from this revolution might affect you, and set up news feeds and processes to monitor and stay abreast of key information
  • Structure a process for learning from all employees what they see as the organizations future. Get everyone involved in forward-thinking
  • Share and invite employee feedback on the current strategic plan. Their insights might well surprise you
  • Ask employees to ‘own’ their area of interest on behalf of the organization, and report new outside findings. Example: if someone loves to follow 3D printing, ask them to update monthly and share interesting developments.

The key is to be forward-thinking, not just with your own faculties, but with those of everyone in your organization. Leverage organizational prescience. Finding ways to do so will not only ensure more comprehensive and better decision-making information, and mitigate risk, but will also include, challenge and motivate all of your employees in the process.

In the US, as the Trump administration reverts to the tired and unproven deregulation and tax cut strategy to stimulate the so-called ‘free-market’, the contrast between that and Rifkin’s proposed strategies becomes truly startling. The risk of betting on the wrong strategy could well prove disastrous for America and the rest of us. At perhaps the most crucial moment in human history, where forward-thinking leadership is desperately needed, the most powerful nation on the planet has handed the reins to a backward-thinking administration. At least if we, as forward-thinking leaders, can ensure we stay constantly informed and proactive, we can then intelligently assess and push back against any public policies that threaten our organizations and indeed, even our world.


Michael Darmody, Principal at Darmody & Company, is a seasoned leadership consultant, executive coach and public speaker who helps clients bridge their performance gaps by improving Purpose, People and Process. He lives in Mississauga, Ontario.





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