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How To Lead In 2018

The key leadership question of this uncertain era: What can we do to inspire optimism?

How To Lead In 2018
Fast Company editor-in-chief Robert Safian on stage at the 2017 Fast Company Innovation Festival. [Photo: Celine Grouard]

When I was in my early twenties, a close relative of mine was murdered on the street by someone he didn’t know. It was a random act of violence that threw me into a spiral of sadness, fear, and negativity. I saw danger around every corner. The future was dark; the past was a fairy tale that had morphed into a cruel joke.

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But the days passed, and I muddled through. At some point, when I got up in the morning and looked in the mirror, I saw hope again in the eyes that looked back at me. And I started the next phase of my life.

I am a believer in the power of optimism, the drive and creativity that possibility can engender. I believe in it not the way a child would, but knowing full well the perils and pitfalls that the world can put in your path.

Today there is much to be anxious about when we get up each day. Uncertainty reigns as rapid change disrupts expectations and social norms. Global leadership is fractured and economic conditions fluctuate widely. Specters loom, from climate change to cyberterrorism. The relentless pace can make you want to curl up in a corner, wary of what might come next.

Or you can stare unblinkingly at this time of chaos and dig into the difficult work of building a better tomorrow. This issue is dedicated to that sense of hope, sharing leadership tales and insights collected at the Fast Company Innovation Festival, a weeklong gathering of top entrepreneurs, thinkers, creators, and practitioners dedicated to holding business to a higher standard. More than 8,000 attendees (32% men and 68% women; average age of 38; from 60 different countries and 45 states) participated in 200-plus workshops, panels, studio tours, and keynotes.

I’ve culled 10 lessons from my experiences that week, which help fuel my optimism. I hope that they, along with the rest of our coverage, inspire you to embrace your own future. We never really know what’s going to happen next; but if we focus on what we can control—and our own reactions to the world around us—we can find meaning and create impact, bringing to life the dreams we all share.

1. Move Quickly, But Don’t Rush

When Ford CEO Jim Hackett talks about leading the 115-year-old company that he took over in 2017, he acknowledges the need to speed up its metabolism—to try more new things. It’s one reason he’s endorsed fast prototyping at Ford’s new Greenfield Labs in Palo Alto. If Ford wants to withstand the revolutions of autonomous driving and next-generation engines, Hackett knows, its culture has to move beyond methodical and reliable. But Hackett also isn’t saying what Ford’s precise business model will be after these revolutions play out. And he’s okay with that uncertainty. He’s too impatient to stand still, yet deeply patient about selecting an ultimate course of action.

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2. Commune With Your Spirit

Someone once told me, “Before you say something in anger, count backward from 100.” Keeping calm is one of the hardest challenges in times of stress. It is also the route to gaining perspective. When Questlove talks about his love of silence—and how it serves as a creative engine for him—he’s definitely onto something. The sound of silence is the sound of someone thinking.

3. Take The Pulpit

One of my favorite verses from the musical Hamilton is the lead character’s admonition of Aaron Burr early in the play: “If you stand for nothing, what will you fall for?” As leaders and as businesses, we are defined by the positions we take on the most difficult issues. To Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, that means pledging to hire 100,000 “opportunity youth.” To soccer star Abby Wambach, that means support for both U.S. patriotism and Colin Kaep­er­nick. As Nike’s Hannah Jones puts it, “A brand that doesn’t stand for something is no longer a brand worth working for.” This is not a moment to be shy.

4. Make Your Organization A Platform For Change

Government officials may claim to be stewards of our social contract, but other institutions provide their own leadership as well. “Think about the sustainability movement,” says Nike’s Jones. “You fly across the world and you see windmill farms everywhere. It doesn’t matter what the U.S. administration is doing; we are all moving to renewable energy.” From education to gender identity norms, businesses play a central role in advancing global culture. Forward-thinking leaders embrace that responsibility with conviction.

5. Get In Someone’s Face

In our tech-filled world of always-on connectivity, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence, direct interaction provides the ultimate competitive advantage. As Ideo’s Fred Dust argues, face-to-face engagement is a dwindling art. Yet it is empathy that unlocks so much capacity and creativity. Whether in a one-on-one situation or a one-to-many forum, listening is an essential skill. As Brandless CEO Tina Sharkey says, “People are craving human interaction. That’s going to move the needle more than any technology you could ever dream up.”

6. Cross The Line

Traditional demarcations of “generations”—what differentiates one age cohort from another—are becoming muddy, as experience takes precedence over age. While seasoned executives still have wisdom to share with young talents—Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood calls the training of young people “probably the most important mark I hope to leave”—modern mentorship is a two-way street. West Elm’s Doug Guiley admits to leaning on his 12-year-old daughter for perspective on his brand. He’s hardly alone in appreciating the fresh eyes and intuition of digital natives.

7. Respect Things You Don’t Understand

Even as businesses work to project confidence in a competitive world, we all have to get comfortable with a higher-than-usual degree of messiness if we want to iterate at the pace of global change. “We can’t think about being perfect, we just have to keep moving forward,” says Dell Technologies’ Elizabeth Gore. Whether the topic is bitcoin or AI, we have to accept that our knowledge is incomplete, that lifelong learning is required. Actor Kate Hudson, who cofounded athleisure brand Fabletics, groans at the prospect of robots invading the retail experience—yet she acknowledges that her company will inevitably need to reckon with them.

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8. Respect People You Don’t Understand

Diversity is not just a social issue; it is a business requirement. Having “a lot of different people in the room,” says Morgan Stanley’s Carla Harris, unlocks broader ideas and opportunities. What’s more, says Professor Michael Kimmel, diversity must be aligned with inclusion, breaking down silos and freeing voices. Whether it’s TV writer Lena Waithe discussing her emotional, Emmy-winning coming-out episode of Master of None, or drag queens Sasha Velour, Milk, and BibleGirl sparking dialogue around how we talk about gender with our kids, uncomfortable topics help us all to grow.

9. Embrace Rising Expectations

Millennials “are getting into positions of leadership faster than we did,” says Morgan Stanley’s Harris. “That is going to cause companies that have been around a long time to change.” A parallel transformation is under way in the consumer marketplace. Sundial’s Bonin Bough uses the term “promiscuous” to describe consumers, not in a derogatory sense, but to underscore how fluid our relationships with products and brands—and employers—have become. That sets the bar higher for everyone, to be more consistent, more responsive, more essential. Yesterday’s achievements just don’t hold the same weight; today’s best practices are tomorrow’s table stakes.

10. Don’t Expect The Best; Make It Happen

To hear Kimbal Musk and Dan Barber argue about the future of food is like glimpsing two parallel visions of the future. Will we grow produce in vertical farms within cities, as Musk would have it? Or will we return to family farming that balances ecology, sustainability, and health, as Barber prefers? Neither course would be considered likely by most analysts, and yet that skepticism bothers the two of them not at all. The fact that their visions are difficult to execute is part of what drives them. They take nothing for granted—and they put everything they have into remaking this vital sector. In the process, they open the door to a better way for all of us.

This story was adapted from the Fast Company Innovation Festival.

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About the author

Robert Safian is the editor and managing director of The Flux Group. From 2007 through 2017, Safian oversaw Fast Company’s print, digital and live-events content, as well as its brand management and business operations

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