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The Future of Work

The Test Of Leadership That Most Leaders Are Failing

Tomorrow's workers may pay the price for today's leaders' lack of foresight.

[Photo: Mukha Alena via Shutterstock]

Let me introduce you to the biggest little problem in leadership: Mega-Problem Denial Syndrome (MPDS). As often in life, it’s the little problems that turn out to be trickier and more troubling than the big ones—like postponing having that troublesome lump scanned because you’re too busy/scared/lazy. Certain challenges may seem distant and therefore small today, yet the pervasive hesitance to even acknowledge them is standing squarely in the way of leadership.

Nowhere is this more true than in the dire circumstances facing millennials’ and gen xers’ careers, financial security, and well-being. If that sounds alarmist, it should. There’s already reason to be pessimistic about tomorrow’s generation of workers, leaders, problem solvers, innovators, and inventors. If their efforts at correcting today’s errors prove too little too late, it’s the denialism that prevails right now that they’ll be able to blame.

How Denialism Works—And Who It's Already Hurting

You know about climate change denialism. It’s not just a belief but an ideology, one closed to facts, logic, and reason. As a result, it’s a pretty good example of the bigger problem of MPDS. No matter how much evidence or how many facts, the carriers of this virus have their minds firmly shut.

Today, most business leaders are in denial that millennials are economically screwed to an almost comical degree. Millennials are the first generation in history—not just American history, but that of the modern advanced world—that will experience lower living standards than their parents. They won’t enjoy retirements, savings, pensions, careers, steady raises, security, stability, assets, homeownership (and maybe even working democracies, societies, a planet) on a par with those that their parents’ generation enjoyed.

Think I'm overstating the case? Congrats! You just fell prey to Mega-Problem Denial Syndrome. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the economic damage done by the Great Recession was on the order of a historic war, catastrophe, or disaster. That damage is like a disabling illness, not a cold: It doesn’t "go away," it leaves societies on lower trajectories of human potential. And it's the young who are going to suffer that loss the most. They're already on lower career trajectories and will earn and save less for life.

Anyone crushed by debt yet forced to work increasingly insane hours for comparatively worse wages (often in jobs and industries that contribute to the inequality whose consequences they suffer) is not free in any meaningful sense of the word.

But you’ll hear precious few business leaders discussing that, let alone doing anything about it. Instead, the prevailing narrative is that the economy’s recovering, and everything’s going to be just fine and dandy, thank you very much. That’s not leadership; that’s an alternate reality built on delusional wish fulfillment.

The Real Test Of Leadership

And that’s why the truest measure of visionary leadership today is simply whether leaders can even see—not comprehend, just acknowledge—the scale and scope of the problems that young workers and their successors will face only a few decades hence. Yet today there’s a curious gap: People are far more aware of, anxious about, and upset over their future prospects and their children’s than most of the world’s top leaders appear to be.

For proof, look no further than the frustration with conventional leadership that the success of the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns attest to, in their vastly different ways. Those two candidates don’t agree on the answers, but much the same thing lies behind their startling rise: the sense among many voters that they get it. Substance aside, Trump and Sanders have both crafted messages whose tenor resonates with the depth of many peoples' anxieties. Meanwhile, their rivals are struggling to do the same—creating an impression among their critics that they don't get it.

Tomorrow’s leadership contests will be between those who rush to tackle the biggest problems on the horizon today and those who ignore or deny them. If the latter will earn outrage, distrust, and irrelevance for their organizations, then the reverse will be true for the former: Leaders who wish to reinvent institutions for the future have to start by acknowledging the roles they've played in causing today's headaches and disasters.

Grading Tomorrow's Scorecard

Much of our mythology around "visionary" leaders who want to remake the world is misplaced, misleading, and untrue. It is indeed vital for would-be leaders to have world-changing visions. But that’s not the first job of a leader. It’s the next. You’ve got to see the world as it truly is in order to imagine it as it should be.

Why? Because the second job of a leader is changing it. We can't change what we can't see, much less comprehend, understand, or explain. If we're blind to a thing, event, or phenomenon, then we're likelier to be powerless victims of it, helpless perpetrators of it, or idle bystanders to it—not the self-aware agents who actually change it.

Regaining that agency rests on accepting another fundamental truth: present challenges, no matter how great, are made by us, for us, through us—especially those of us who wish to be leaders. Thus, it is our right and obligation to change them.

Every single day, climate change is teaching us what consequences to expect from challenges that we're too slow to acknowledge are real. Now we hardly consider climate-change denialists to be leaders in any sense of the term. The threats of a warming world were barely perceptible, until they weren’t—and at that point, they became a test: face the facts or turn away.

Today, that scorecard is easy to grade. You can bet tomorrow’s will be, too.

Umair Haque is an author and economist. Follow him on Twitter at @umairh.

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