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The Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) Global Executive Development Programme provides business leaders with the tools to lead their organisations through the new ‘polycrisis’ world order while striving for sustainability and growth.

When the entire planet comes to a standstill because of a virus, and a war on the other side of the globe deepens the economic slump in Africa, leaders must adjust rapidly. What used to work previously is no longer fit for purpose. Companies need ‘future-fit’ leaders to help unlock new value and future-proof their businesses. As recent global events show, knowing how to navigate simultaneous or overlapping crises has become paramount. The World Economic Forum even declared 2023 as the year of the ‘polycrisis’. In South Africa, business leaders have to deal with the aftermath of the Covid pandemic and the ripple effects of the Ukraine conflict, which include rising inflation and interest rates, while also tackling the impacts of climate change and extreme weather (drought, flood, fire) along with social issues and worsening electricity blackouts.

‘The complexity of the world that we now live in has a number of permutations,’ says Abdullah Verachia, Senior Faculty at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). ‘We are witnessing the very real challenge of the interdependence and tensions that exist between countries. So, whether it be geopolitical tension, trade wars, the fight for market share by companies from countries in different environments, or whether it be operating a global supply chain without disruptions – we are starting to appreciate that the interdependency and the rapid increase in globalisation up until Covid has created implications for organisations and their leadership.’

What makes a future-fit leader

‘Adapting to this new environment will require a complex and significant shift in how business leaders think and act; becoming future-fit is not simply a case of adjusting to “a more digital age”,’ says consultancy EY. Its report How to become a future-fit leader reveals that leaders are finding it difficult to deliver sustainable performance among shrinking company life expectancy. The average lifespan of an S&P 500 company in the US is expected to plummet from the 30 to 35 years it was in the late 1970s to 15 to 20 years this decade, according to Innosight’s 2021 Corporate Longevity Forecast. The index shows a steady churn rate of companies dropping off the list and new entrants joining. 

‘A future-fit leader in the 21st century requires much deeper insights beyond knowing how to run a business,’ says Verachia. ‘To be able to respond to a rapidly evolving business sector and external environment, you need the understanding of what’s happening in the world around you; politically, digitally, technologically, socially, and environmentally.’

While it may be tempting to act narrowly in the company’s own interests, business leaders must consider people and the planet while striving for profits. Environmental, social and privacy expectations are mounting as disillusioned people look to executives for answers. The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer found business to be ‘the only institution seen as competent and ethical’, with people expecting CEOs ‘to hold divisive forces accountable and improve economic optimism’. 

Paradoxical mindsets 

Leaders will require grit and resilience to deal with expectations like these in the midst of the global polycrisis. It means the required skill sets may sometimes seem contradictory, with EY calling for future-fit leaders with paradoxical mindsets. These include ‘Ambitiously Appreciative’ leaders, who know that ‘to achieve ambitious goals they need to be relentless and determined and they need to find a way to be sustainable and keep perspective’. Then there are ‘Ruthlessly Caring’ leaders, who ‘make tough decisions to achieve performance and remain compassionate no matter what’, and ‘Confidently Humble’ leaders, who ‘inspire others to have confidence in them and their ability and are honest about their limitations, aware that they can’t achieve ambitious goals alone.’ 

In line with this, Verachia says a future-fit leader is likely to say, ‘I can’t anticipate what the future will look like, but I have the strategic foresight of what might play out in terms of plausible scenarios.’ ‘Other crucial leadership skills centre around curiosity, innovation, design thinking and leading in complexity,’ he says. ‘These are the skills that can’t be digitised or automated. Unfortunately, they are not sufficiently taught at school and university, but will likely be the most important skills of the future.”’

Future-proofing your business 

GIBS’ Global Executive Development Programme (GEDP) attempts to fill this gap by teaching these and other future leadership skills to C-suite executives, directors, heads of departments and owners of medium-to-large enterprises. The high-level strategic leadership programme delegates from the macro context of global business sectors into organisations and how to build strategy, innovate and become more operationally efficient while facing disruption and uncertainty. ‘Then we focus on the person in the mirror, asking who are the leaders who have to deliver on this?’ says Verachia. In addition to teaching universally applicable, portable leadership skills and a future-fit mindset, the course also provides insights into digital leadership – an area amplified by the pandemic. He says that in this context, sustainability and ESG (environment, social and governance) issues have also become more pronounced since COVID. ‘We see ESG becoming central in the strategy and direction of organisations, not only in terms of looking after the environment, but also in having a positive societal impact and displaying good governance.’ 

This reflects the interconnected worldview that EY describes as essential for future-fit leaders. These leaders typically work towards creating sustainable impact for multiple stakeholders such as employees, customers, society and future generations. The aim is not ‘doing good’ at all costs, but contributing positively and making profit. EY says, ‘For future-fit leaders, business is very much a “both-and” not “either-or”.’

To encourage this shared-value, big-picture thinking when leading in complex markets, Verachia brings up contextual intelligence. ‘We teach the ability to understand that somebody’s lived experience is limited and framed by what they do, where they come from, what they earn, and why it’s important to get a deeper understanding of others.’  A large component of the GEDP is experiential learning, including an international travel immersion that exposes delegates to different cultures and environments, at various levels of complexity. 

Yet, despite the current challenges, there is a silver lining. Verachia points out that many successful companies were launched during difficult periods because they addressed societal pain points. And that’s the essence of future-fit leadership: having a positive outlook on the future and turning a polycrisis into opportunities.  DM


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