Fitness is one of the keys to great leadership

Many Americans are already chasing a familiar goal in 2018: getting fit. Weight loss topped the list of resolutions in the recent Marist Poll, with exercise and healthy eating close behind.

If history is any indicator, though, the vast majority of people will fail to follow through – and, without realizing it, compromise their leadership effectiveness in the process.

Our most recent column explored the future of work in the United States. In it, experts predict, large-scale employers will dwindle and freelance work will flourish, while a changing economy will require massive investments in retraining. Strong public and private leadership will be crucial for navigating these turbulent times, raising a critical question: What skills will leaders need to succeed in a future where work is radically different from the past?

In his book “The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything,” published in late 2017, futurist Bob Johansen singles out “creating and sustaining positive energy” as one of five key leadership skills for the future. “Leaders will need to seed realistic hope for a future laced with fear,” writes Johansen, a distinguished fellow at Silicon Valley’s Institute for the Future, which advises many of the world’s largest and most innovative companies. “The strongest leaders will be body hackers who promote physical, mental and spiritual well-being.” In other words, we need to take those annual resolutions about our health a lot more seriously.

In Silicon Valley, “hacking” is shorthand for growing or making. Johansen believes it will be imperative for leaders to leverage new technology, such as wearable sensors like Fitbits, to collect data about their own bodies that can be used to elevate their performance. Meanwhile, rapid advances in neuroscience will offer new techniques for managing stress and increasing mindfulness. “The tools for energy management are so much better now than they ever were – and they will get ever better over the next decade,” writes Johansen, who has collaborated closely with Greensboro’s Center for Creative Leadership (where Stephen and Christopher are both affiliated). “Leaders have no excuse now. Fitness will be a price of entry for top leadership roles.”

But fitness won’t be the only key to effective leadership. Understanding the changing context that we’re leading in, or what Johansen calls “looking backward from the future,” will set the stage for success. “You will need to be clear about direction (clarity will be rewarded) but flexible about execution (certainty will be punished),” he says. The best way to gain clarity is to explore what your organization and industry could look like in 10 years, factoring in demographics, geo-politics, technology, competition and other trends. A 10-year forecast that the Institute for the Future did with Procter & Gamble, for instance, helped P&G see and prepare for the fact that biotechnology would disrupt some of its core businesses.

An unpredictable world will also push leaders to the limits of their knowledge and judgment, so “voluntary fear engagement,” as Johansen puts it, will help them make better decisions. Similar to war gaming exercises that the military has used for decades, simulations, games and immersive learning will offer leaders low-risk ways to experiment with challenging situations, lower anxiety and build confidence.

Decentralization of power, in both society and organizations, will be a hallmark of the future, requiring “leadership for shape-shifting organizations,” in Johansen’s words. He predicts a new era of organizations that “have no center, grow from the edges, and cannot be controlled” with the kind of command-and-control hierarchies that typified many 20th century companies. In a world where power is distributed, partnerships and reciprocity will be the key to getting things done. For leaders, that will mean more listening than talking, more giving than taking and a willingness to share power.

As the economy grows more global and companies become more distributed, leaders will need to excel at “being there when you are not there.” This fifth and final skill calls for considerable savviness with technology to connect with people across geographic, organizational and generational boundaries. “In-person meetings will still be best for some things, but you will need to decide which medium is good for what, with which people, at what time,” Johansen says. Every leader will need their own communications strategy.

Developing all five of the leadership literacies that Johansen identifies is a daunting task. But following through on that fitness resolution for this year is a great place to start.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Cities, a founding partner of HQ Community and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.