The New Leadership Literacies: A book review by Bob Morris

The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything
Bob Johansen
Berrett-Koehler Publishers (2017)

“The illiterate of the 21st century will be those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Alvin Toffler

Toffler made that prediction 34 years ago in his classic work, Future Shock, and I was again reminded of it as I began to read Bob Johansen’s latest book. He suggests that “the shift from centralized to distributed organizations has already begun, but the current leadership literacy — inherited from large, centralized organizations — isn’t ready for a future when anything that can be distributed will be distributed.” That is, organizations “that have no center, grow from the edges, and cannot be controlled.” Johansen explains why and how leaders must develop five specific literacies:

1. Forecast likely futures so that you can “look back” and make sure you have prepared for the changes to come,
2. Use low-risk gaming spaces to work through your concerns about the future and hone your leadership skills,
3. Lead shape-shifting organizations where you can’t just tell people what to do,
4. Be a dynamic presence even when you’re not there in person, and
5. Keep your personal energy high and transmit that energy throughout your organization.

Johansen devotes a pair of separate but interdependent chapters to each of the five, thoroughly explaining both the WHY and the HOW while anchoring his insights in a real-world context.  Whether or not someone is able to develop these leadership literacies will depend almost entirely — and here I channel Toffler — on the extent to which they can learn, unlearn, and relearn what to be as well as what to do.

One final point: It would be a fool’s errand for a reader to attempt to adopt and adapt all of Bob Johansen’s suggestions and recommendation. The fact remains, however, that many — if not most — of those who are now in a leadership position or aspire to occupy one are ill-prepared for the challenges they will encounter in months and years to come. Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything will define the future, for better or worse.

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