He's not concerned with yesterday
He knows constant change is here today
He's noble enough to know what's right
But weak enough not to choose it
He's wise enough to win the world
But fool enough to lose it
He's a new-world man
- Neil Peart, Rush, 1982
Yesterday, I was listening to the song “New World Man” by the Canadian trio Rush. The song was penned almost forty years ago by lyricist and drummer Neil Peart, whom we sadly lost this year. As a die-hard Rush fan for nearly that long, it’s rare for me to have any new observations about their music. Yet, when listening to the song I was struck by the lyrics above, particularly as it relates to the world of work today.
With the line “He knows constant change is here today,” Neil Peart presciently described in 1982 what most of us have only begun to really notice in the past decade or so. The song (full song and lyrics here) often describes a contrast in character traits, as if the New World Man sits on the edge between the new world and the old. He wants to bring about a better world but must navigate the old one to get there; he also doesn’t have all the capabilities needed (he knows what needs to be done but not how to do it).
This is very much the journey most of us are on when it comes to the future of work and led me to ask a series of questions:
What does it mean to be a “New World Man” (or woman) today and who are they?
Are they the Millenials? Or perhaps the younger Gen Z that was immersed in technology from birth?
Could they be generation-agnostic, meaning it’s more about having a certain mindset (e.g. could I be a New World Man despite the graying strands of what little hair I have left)?
Does a New World Man even exist yet or maybe what we have are a lot of “Transitional Men” at this point in history?
And finally, and most importantly, what does this mean for leadership in the workplace today?
These are a lot of questions for one rock song to generate (but hey, it’s Rush – the thinking man’s rock band)! I’m not going to answer each individually, as they are meant to be more thought-provoking than anything else. Instead, I will share my overall perspective that resulted from this Rush-inspired exercise. To do this, let’s first look at our current moment in time in contrast to what came before.
A “New World Man” is not a concept that would resonate for most of mankind’s history. For untold millennia nothing changed. The way people lived and went about their daily lives was essentially the same as that of their great, great, great grandparents, and would be the same for their descendants.
In recent centuries, however, change began to accelerate exponentially and we are now at the part of the exponential curve where it begins to take a sharp turn upward – “begins” is the key word here. If we’re having a hard enough time adapting to such rapid change now, can you imagine what it will be like for our children and our children’s children at the top of the curve? They will need to have a completely different mindset – one instilled in them from an early age. In fact, their entire worldview, their frame of reference for how they operate in the world, will likely need to be different. They will be the true “New World Men.”
However, this doesn’t mean we can’t start making that shift today. Incorporating some of this mindset change, especially for leaders, will go a long way to adapting to the future of work and creating healthier, more engaging workplaces.
How can leaders adopt a “New World Man” mindset in order to create a working environment fit for today’s accelerated age, while fostering New World employees?
The transformation required of leaders today is a huge topic. I’ve written briefly on it before and there are volumes of books out there with excellent ideas on the subject. Most recently, I read “The Future of Leadership” by Josh Medcalf and Seth Mattison that provides a novel approach (literally, it’s a novel about one man’s transformation from old school leader to a new age one). There’s also the classic “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership” by Ronald Heifetz.
So what else can I add to this body of knowledge? Perspective shift.
If there’s one thing missing from these new approaches to leadership, it’s how they view and plan for the future. Fully understanding the impact of exponential change and learning to become more adaptive to it is a Herculean task in of and itself. But doing this doesn’t stop the firehose that is the stream of future changes coming at you – nothing can. Even the most adept will eventually get tripped up by this stream.
What leaders need is a roadmap of the emerging futures. “Future” is plural in this sense because we are talking about a range of possibilities. No one can predict the future with perfect accuracy, but it is possible to forecast a range of plausible futures (“plausible” being the keyword here) using the discipline of Strategic Foresight. Doing so provides an organization with maps of potential futures (albeit ones with ink that have not dried yet). These can be used to help navigate the constant uncertainty and continuous change that wears on them.
While this method is not a crystal ball by any means, it does enable you to get a little bit ahead of the freight train of the future that’s coming at you. Instead of being reactive, the organization can better anticipate what’s going to be in front of them.
This is also the mindset that leaders must develop today. They need to shed the fear of uncertainty that leads to short-term planning and short-sighted decisions and take an approach that combines adaptive, resilient behaviors with foresight-driven strategic thinking. I call this Anticipatory Leadership and believe it will be one of the factors that will enable organizations to do business at the speed of change.
Taking this approach to leadership is one way that all of us can begin our transformation into New World Men and Women! Until then, enjoy this clip of Rush playing New World Man live in Rio!