This article is co-authored by Lewis Garrad, Mercer Partner and Business Lead for Mercer’s People Science consulting practice and Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup.
If the popularity of TV shows like Altered Carbon and Black Mirror tells us anything, it’s that many people have a deep (and sometimes morbid) fascination with the future. Perhaps this is because thinking about the future is both useful and fun. It allows us to use our imagination while also engaging in some productive life planning. Practically speaking, thinking ahead is a good strategy to reduce uncertainty, make better decisions and improve our wellbeing because it helps to inform actions today that might improve our lives tomorrow. 


co-author Lewis Garrad, Partner and business lead for Mercer’s People Science consulting practice

This said, perhaps the reason many people spend a lot of time thinking about the future has more to do with procrastination: it is a useful activity to avoid dealing with the present. For example, HR discussions regarding how technology will impact work, what the future of leadership look like, or what the critical competencies of 2030 might be, are all useful excuses for not dealing with today’s problems. Designing a strategy for the challenges of tomorrow is a great way to look productive while avoiding any accountability for the difficulties of today.

In any event one should always be skeptical when consuming any expert advice or predictions about the future, not least because nobody has any data about it. As the Danish Physicist Niels Bohr once noted, “Prediction is very difficult, especially when it is about the future”. Inherent in this message is the idea that the only certainty we have about our future, is often that it is uncertain. This might seem strange given we live in a time of unprecedented innovation and insight, when most of us have access to the collective intelligence of the internet at our finger tips, and eCommerce companies seem to know what we want to buy even before we do. But it turns out that the paradox of all this data and “insight” is that it only generates more ignorance – the more we know, the more we can change, and the more unpredictable the future becomes. 

As the 4th industrial revolution spreads into working life, people have become increasingly aware of this uncertainty. Managing such unpredictability is extremely stressful and the influx of new technology into the workplace has been overwhelming for many . It’s easy to understand why people would start to feel anxious in this situation. The natural consequence is that they look to leaders for support and guidance – searching for leadership with the vision and resilience to navigate the ambiguity. We can see this happening in both the political and business worlds as leaders seem to be bated into talking about increasingly extravagant visions of the future or to speak unrealistically about the certainty of success. Our evaluation of leadership often seems to more to do with the strength of conviction someone displays than anything grounded in reality. 

As the role of leaders becomes even more important for guiding people through such turbulence, it is increasingly apparent that the general level of leadership competence in most places is rather dismal. This in spite of the billions of dollars spent on “developing it” every year. People want a leader who is competent, courageous, empathetic and resilient but many end up with someone who is far more self-serving – characterized more by their over-confidence, self-significance and hubris than anything else. 

The impact that technological and social changes are having on the role of leaders, means that it will be difficult to maintain this situation. Changes in technology will make the people side of leadership even more significant than it was before. As a recent article by the researcher Peter Harms noted, most of what leaders do today can already be handled by some sort of artificial intelligence (AI). And as AI makes technical answers easier to find, organizational systems easier to control and the day to day thoughts and activities of the leader even more scalable (think of leaders on Twitter), the integrity, social skills and political capital of the person in charge become even more important

So how do we bridge the gap between where we are today, and where we want to be tomorrow, especially when it comes to ensuring that we are in the hands of talented leaders in the future? In our view, there are three main areas that organizations need to focus on:

photo of Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

co-author Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, HR Examiner Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

Making it harder for incompetent men to become leaders

It is clear that most leaders are not just male, but also ineffective. Indeed, poor leadership is the number one source of disengagement, turnover, and underperformance (both at the individual and team level). We know very well what type of leaders are likely to be needed today and tomorrow: competent individuals who are not just subject-matter experts but also smart, curious, and ethical. Those who are capable of empathizing with others and who can turn a group of individuals into a high-performing team without burning them out or making them miserable. While this seems obvious, most organizations continue to select people to leadership jobs based on their ability to play politics, fake competence during job interviews, or entertain us with their confidence and charisma. This also hinders the progress of women into leadership roles as feminine leaders tend to display more humility and care for subordinates. If we are serious about elevating the standards of leadership in the future, then we should stop playing it by ear and focus on the right traits. Using science rather than intuition to appoint people to the most consequential roles in organizations is where we should focus our efforts.

Get serious about measuring performance

One of the main reasons for the prevalence of ineffective leadership is that we rarely evaluate leaders’ impact reliably. Go into any organization and ask the average person who their most important leaders are, and they will probably nominate those who are most successful. However, there is generally very little overlap between success (how far people go up the career ladder) and performance (what they actually contribute to the organization). This gap is not just a function of nepotism and politics, but also a carefree approach to quantifying leaders’ contribution to the organization. Beyond sales teams, which have relatively clear-cut KPIs, such as profits and revenues), every leader can be evaluated through the following data: upward feedback (what their subordinates think of them), 360 degree feedback (involving peers and bosses), team engagement, productivity, performance relative to similar teams (internally and externally), customer service ratings and innovation output. Just look at the world of competitive team sports: once we account for resources, such as teams’ budgets and players’ salaries and transfer fees, we can easily compare the performance of different managers by looking at where their teams end up. The same should happen in every big business. 

Make workplaces more transparent, fair, and meritocratic

There is nothing that communicates the values of an organization more clearly than who gets promoted, and you only need to ask employees whether it is those with most talent and the strongest work ethic, or those who excel at navigating politics and managing up. This means that people who get promoted are seen as role models for what is actually valued by leaders, even if it’s not clearly valuable to the organization. Promotion also usually comes with some sort of increased decision-making responsibility, which means that promoted people often consolidate their impact on culture. In spite of this, most talent processes depend heavily on politics and organizational influence rather than any sort of objective data. Data collected by Mercer | Sirota employee surveys over the last few years suggests that only around half of employees understand how promotion decisions are made – and only half believe that promotions are based on ability. Clearer criteria for what makes someone promotable, as well as better talent and performance data can help improve the transparency of this process. There is also the possibility that machine learning models can be used to support the prediction of who will be a better performer in more senior/complex roles. However, the biggest barrier that organization’s will need to overcome to make this transition is convincing leaders who have learnt to use politics and nepotism to their advantage to change their approach. If the data disagrees with your preferred candidate, will you still select them anyway?
Leaders play a significant role in shaping our work (and our lives). While new technologies might change the day to day activities of a leader, the fundamental characteristics of effective leadership are not changing – integrity, competence, humility and vision are all still important. New technology gives organizations the opportunity to see leaders more clearly for who they really are – rendering a clearer picture of the bright and dark side of their personalities and values. The question is whether anyone will actually use these insights to make better decisions. The anxiety created by the future of work conversation seems to be maintaining the status quo when it comes to how we evaluate leadership. If we really want to see a future where competence trumps confidences, then we need to change what we are looking for.  


About Co-Author Lewis Garrad, People Science, International Region

Lewis Garrad is the Partner and business lead for Mercer’s People Science consulting practice across the Growth Markets region (fast growth economies). In his role, he applies his training in organizational psychology and experience in the development of data driven talent, engagement and employee performance programs to help business leaders and HR executives design people practices that improve organizational performance. Prior to his role in Mercer, Lewis was the Managing Director for Sirota Consulting’s Asia Pacific operation.

Voted a top 101 Global Employee Engagement Influencer he is regular contributor to publications such as the Harvard Business Review, Talent Quarterly and HQ Asia in the areas of HR data, employee engagement and leadership.

Lewis has designed and implemented some of the world’s largest HR initiatives including engagement programs. He has also supported the development of HR capabilities programs, including a leading role in the development of the HR Skills Framework in Singapore, partnering closely with the Ministry of Manpower, Institute of Human Resource Professional and SkillsFuture Singapore. He has deep experience making HR programs relevant for C-level executives in global companies as well as facilitating Senior Leadership Teams to help them unlock leadership effectiveness.

Lewis is chartered by the British Psychological Society (BPS) as an Occupational Psychologist, he graduated from the University of Nottingham in the UK with an MSc in Occupational Psychology and a First Class Honours BSc in Psychology & Cognitive Neuroscience. Lewis is also qualified by the British Psychological Society to use both ability tests and personality questionnaires (Hogan, NEO-PI-r) to assess talent.

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