Five Leadership Shifts for 2012
The Big Trends that will Shape Business Culture

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Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple's recently knighted chief designer, has said that 'it's easy to be different, but very difficult to be better.'

He should know! The entire foundation of Apple's domination of the phone and tablet markets is driven by one thing above all. It is committed to delivering products that provide a consistently better user experience than its competitors.

Steve Jobs will be remembered in history not for his design ability so much as his willingness to try to proactively shape the future.

Influence in any market or sector of industry or society comes not from how well we celebrate past glories. It is not a product of how well we enjoy our present situation.

Truly game-changing influence comes from how well we engage the future, with curiosity, wisdom and passion.

As a leadership speaker, I am privileged to observe the changing face of leadership within organisations of various kinds in many parts of the world. The research we do at 2020Plus Ltd., the London-based international think-tank, also allows me to see how general social shifts will likely impact business, civic and other groups.

In 2012, five major shifts will impact leadership in businesses of all kinds. They will shape both internal productivity and external, marketable perceptions about their products and services.

 (In some ways, these will reflect wider social shifts – click here for more.)

The same shifts will, in different ways, play an important role within civic and public institutions and in faith-based and Third sector organisations.

1. Innovation Revolution

Given the ongoing threat of negative economic growth, a new drive for innovation will emerge in 2012. Businesses will be on the hunt for creative ways to produce more with less.

In an age where business will place a higher value upon innovation than information, entrepreneurs will emerge with new approaches to seemingly intractable problems. Many will draw funding through things like online ‘crowd-funding’ rather than traditional venture capitalism.

In the age of connection, the best leaders will abandon pie-chart thinking and be willing to kill sacred cows on an almost weekly basis. At times, they will cannibalise their own past successes, their own best ideas, to produce new strategies and methods as relationships change.

Leaders will face the challenge of creating cultures of innovation, in which people feel confident in their own ability to create solutions. Problem-solving and design-thinking skills will be an important area of training within better-placed business teams.

2.      Isolutions

Marketing leaders in particular will discover what I call ‘isolution’. This is the ability to respond to the aspirations, needs and desires of individuals or small groups of individuals via unfolding conversations, rather than ‘pitching’ to demographic target groups.

Social media are here to stay; they will continue to play a significant role in our cultural conversation. But many users are discovering their limitations – and their true potential benefits.

Spontaneous flash-mobs, supported by texting and social networking, are cleaning up the streets of cash-strapped cities like Naples. The same thing happened in the wake of London’s riots, where broom-and-brush brigades took to the streets and restored not just the urban environment but some of London’s battered international image.

These phenomena are driven by more than collaboration for the sake of civic pride; they’re about people searching for opportunities to form personal connections using digital media as a platform.

Over the next year, business and other leaders will need to recognise this growing sensitivity to making connections. They will need to provide opportunities for people to progress quickly toward higher levels of connection over time.

3.      Time Starvation & Anxiety

Increasing levels of remote working and flexi-hours, driven by economic necessity for both businesses and employees and the possibilities of constant Web 3.0 connectedness, will bring a rise in ‘time starvation’. People will find it increasingly difficult to leave their work behind at the end of the day. International studies already reveal a growing challenge in this area.

Old concepts revolving around achieving work-life balance will not longer prove adequate, as work and life threaten to become more integrated than before.

Some corporate groups, recognising the detrimental effect this has on workers, will institute new work rules and training schemes to help people switch off after hours. VW in Germany recently moved to turn off company email accounts out-of-hours, so that workers will not be bothered by work-related mail at home.

Some bosses will insist on digital-free zones in the workplace, where the emphasis is on ‘eyeball time’ and face-to-face interaction. They will see this as a cost-effective way of improving productivity.

At the same time, there will be strident calls from mental health groups for greater investment, from public and private sectors, in making counselling and therapy more readily available to all sections of society.

Already, in the US alone, depression is costing companies $31-$40 billion in lost production each year. The problem is not simply work-related distress or stress, but anxiety in general, linked to all the many pressures of modern life.

Some larger corporations will set up mental health units of their own, to provide at least low level counselling for stressed workers (e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy). Other such units will be underwritten by smaller business collectives or networks and housed within industrial estates.

4. Privacy and Trust

In 2012, new developments in web and RFID technologies will continue to inspire greater calls for the protection of personal privacy. Lifestyle logging, ID-theft, the increased use of wave-and-pay tools and the hijacking of social network accounts, will inspire calls for greater accountability from both internet providers and tech-reliant industries.

At present, it is estimated that at least 70 percent of American companies track the emails of their workers and 30 percent track individual keystrokes.

The use of deep packet encryption, formerly used only by governments in the fight against terrorism, is now increasingly used to track key words within corporate emails.

Companies of all kinds will need to get ahead of the curve, ready for a heightened sensitivity about privacy. People who do not feel trusted will eventually reciprocate in kind, losing faith in the companies for which they work. Their commitment and productivity will drop as a result.

The need for protection against abuse of corporate accounts will need to be more carefully balanced against the need to inspire internal trust and loyalty.

5. The Rise of the Millennials

We will see in 2012 the beginnings of a much higher level of social influence for the so-called Millennial generation, especially those aged between 16 and 30 years. In the workplace, this will translate into emerging tension points as a digital-thinking generation merges with an analogue world.

A more vocal and organised activism will emerge within this highly collaborative generation in an attempt to engage corporate decision-making. A generation that has been encouraged from childhood to speak up, will not now wish to sit and be quiet, or to wait their turn before seeking influence.

Many Millennials, including those emerging from universities and business colleges, will approach the workplace with a deep sense of frustration. In particular, they will feel frustrated that, in the wake of the financial downturn, their early expectations are not being met, in terms of the types of work available to them.

To counter this frustration and maximise their integration into multi-generational teams, many companies will invest in less structured, more relational and informal mentoring schemes.

Some will wisely follow the lead of IBM, Microsoft and other giants in establishing reverse mentoring, which allows younger workers to mentor their elders in areas such as developing digital-thinking and relating services to younger markets.


The future is, by definition, uncertain. Every New Year brings with it an eclectic bundle of challenges and brilliant opportunities. The future we collectively draw out of those raw materials will not primarily be a product of economics or technology. It will be the result of human choices, of deliberate actions and reactions to events.

By taking a proactive stance toward 2012, we can make leadership choices which will potentially lift performance and productivity. In the process, we can develop our most precious resource – the people who work for us and with us.


© Copyright with Mal Fletcher

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