In Search of ‘Intelligent’ Leaders for the Emerging, New World Order

Theo H Veldsman

Professor, Department of Industrial Psychology and People Management, Faculty of Management, University of Johannesburg

Theo Veldsman
Theo Veldsman

Leadership is about the future

Leadership is about conceiving possible futures, and realising a chosen, desired future. The future hence forms the crux of effective leadership and leading. Leaders who pro-actively take charge of their organisations’ future through pursuing a chosen, desired future, will be architects of their future, not victims. Under conditions of uncertainty, and shifting, open-ended futures as we are currently experiencing, the demand for leadership excellence becomes a pressing and dire necessity.  Indeed, the pressing need is for outstanding leadership excellence more often, at more locations, exercised by a greater number of people.  The intensifying and growing crisis regarding leadership makes sense when seen against the backdrop of the need for leadership excellence because leadership is the essential means of actualising desirable, stretch futures.

Leadership as the centre piece in the success of teams, organisations, communities, and societies have been demonstrated unequivocally: Leadership does make a difference. But in what way? Leadership serves as the beacon for direction and guidance; radiate mobilising energy around which people (sometimes widely diverse) rally; envision people to visualise and explore previously unseen challenges, and test apparently impossible boundaries; enable and empower people to rise above their circumstances, frequently during the darkest of times; and model the desired ways of acting, to be adopted by others. Leadership thus is a verb, not a noun. It is action, not a state.

Leadership in the firing line

However, on many fronts, and in many ways, our insight into and the exercise of leadership, is under severe scrutiny because of a radically changing and significantly different world; reinvented/ reinventing organisations; and people with significantly different or significantly shifting needs, expectations, aspirations and needs. Leadership is in the overheating crucible of a reframed/ reframing world.

The fierce current debate about leadership and leadership excellence (or the lack there of), may be one of the most important issues of our present time, alongside issues such as population growth/ decline, economic prosperity, food security, world peace, global warming, and sustainability.  Indeed, there is a strong case to argue that the cause of, and consequently the permanent and successful resolution of the latter issues, may overwhelmingly be attributed to the quality of current and future leadership. In other words, the issues we are facing at present, are the result of the lack of leadership excellence.

The clarion call is clear and unequivocal: at this critical juncture in our history, the search is on for better and different leadership. Leaders, and thus leadership, will have to reinvent themselves if they wish to be successful in the future, given the emerging, new world order with its commensurate challenges. Old recipes and conventional ways of leading can no longer suffice.  It can be contended that those nations, societies, communities and organisations that are/ will be able to demonstrate leadership excellence consistently and in abundance, will dominate and inherit the future.

A mission critical capability for excellent leaders in our current Knowledge Society

A mission critical capability for leaders of excellence in our current Knowledge Society, is the ability to transform Experiences into Information, Information into Knowledge, and Knowledge into Wisdom on an ongoing basis. Concurrently, as this transformation unfolds, a recursive, iterative transformation process occurs: deepening Wisdom transforming how existing/ new Knowledge is seen and applied at an enriched level; in turn, the reframed Knowledge transforming existing/ new Information with a similar effect; and so on.  Given our virtual, interconnected society this two-way transformation process is happening anywhere, anyhow, anytime, with anyone and anything.

Experiences and Information lie on the ‘horizontal’, ‘width’ axis of Everyday Busyness, whereas Knowledge and Wisdom lie on the ‘vertical’, ‘depth’ axis of Reflective Living/ Practice. Because of the relentless speed and overwhelming dynamics of the emerging new world order, leaders face a real risk of becoming merely the sum total of unreflected, undigested, constantly and rapidly accumulating Experiences and Information with little if any growth in the enriching, underpinnings of their Knowledge and Wisdom. Consequentially, their transformation process is weak.

The risk of merely accumulating Experiences and Information arises out of too little time for Reflective Living in this new order with its unforgiving, busyness demands. Everyday Busyness overwhelms and crowds out Reflective Living. Reflective living requires sufficient ‘quiet time’ for the two way transformation to occur since this process in its very essence is a maturing and fermentation process which takes time.

The need for ‘intelligent’ leaders

Without any doubt, we need more ‘intelligent” leaders who are better able to deal with greater excellence with the emerging, new world order, especially in terms of the deepening and richer Knowledge and Wisdom they need to have. The new  world order is radically different in its nature and dynamics, being characterised by increasing discontinuous, radical change, heightened complexity, snow balling chaos, deepening ambiguity, and widening seamlessness, all contributing to eroding exponentially the validity of our current Experiences, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom.

To the extent that a leader has acquired, and is growing the above critical transformational capability particularly on the vertical Reflective Living/ Practice axis, he/ she will become a more ‘intelligent’ Leader. In this way she/ he will more fit to lead in the Knowledge Society. Why? Because as this mission critical capability strengthens, the above transformational process of the leader will become more effective, turning into a virtuous cycle of ever increasingly, higher levels of intelligence. The complexity and richness in terms of the richness in breadth and depth of the leader’s Experiences, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom will grow over time. Inversely, the more intelligent a leader becomes, the more effective the transformation process will become.

Intelligence (from the Latin “to understand”) refers to leaders who can observe, think, judge, act, learn and reflect with a true understanding as they engage – conceptually and practically – with the world, being equipped with the ability to move seamlessly and iteratively through the two way transformation process on both the horizontal and vertical axes, but especially on the latter axis. And in turn, as they grow in intelligence, their ability will become greater in further enhancing the transformation process.

The intelligence modes of the intelligent leader 

The overall intelligence of the excellent leader can be decomposed into five modes of intelligence.  The five intelligence modes form the systemic, whole of an ‘intelligent’ Leader. In other words, the culmination of the truly intelligent leader is to be found in the synergy between five individual intelligence modes that form a meta-intelligence as these intelligences, individually and severally, progressively grow and mature through the two way, transformation process unfolding across Experiences, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom.  Although discussed separately below, in no particular order, it must be understood at all times that each intelligence contributes to the leader’s overarching meta-intelligence, culminating in an ‘intelligent’ leader fit for the emerging, new world order.

Intelligence Mode 1: Personal and Interpersonal Intelligence – Self-Insight expressed in an authentic Identity

The crux of this leadership intelligence is Self-Insight. Personal and Interpersonal Intelligence (including Emotional Intelligence) centers around the degree to which my Identity as a Leader has crystalised, and I have become a person in my own right: I know who and what I am as a leader, what I stand for, and my impact on others.

But it is more than only having a crystalised Identity. My Identity has to be infused with authenticity. Having an authentic Identity, as the highest form of Personal and Interpersonal Intelligence, relates to having a sense of being true to myself, and being genuine in terms of my understanding and acceptance of whom I am and wish to be as a person, the ‘real’ me. This gives my life as leader meaning and makes it meaningful. True authenticity infuses my crystalised Identity with confidence, humility and integrity in being a people-centric leader.

Intelligence Mode 2: Cognitive Intelligence – Conceptual Understanding expressed in masterful Expertise   

The crux of this intelligence is Conceptual Understanding. Cognitive Intelligence revolves around the expertise the leader needs to be a master of, and be masterful at, as an excellent leader. Put differently, the intelligence the leader needs to have at his/ her disposal in order to make a lasting and worthy contribution to the world in terms of the worthy and lasting legacy he/ she wishes to leave behind as a leader.

High Cognitive Intelligence hence implies that I as an excellent leader am an unquestionable, publically acknowledged, master of the field I am active in. Firstly, as a leader I am able in a masterful way to use and apply wisely the expertise pertaining to my operating arena. But, secondly, I am able to generate new expertise, in this way pushing the boundaries of my field, whilst concurrently renewing myself and my field of expertise. Intelligent leaders adopt lifelong learning as a way living.

Intelligence Mode 3: Spiritual Intelligence – Idealisation expressed in inspiring, boundary busting Dreams  

The crux of this intelligence is Idealisation. Spiritual Intelligence (which has nothing to do with religion) encompasses having inspiring, boundary busting Dreams about what the world can, may and should be. In other words, idealising a better future, in the search for a deepening and enriched sense of purpose and meaning.

This intelligence entails that a leader becomes masterful at four modes of dreaming in his/ her search to make the world a better place for coming generations (given from the least to the most daring, creative destruction): from how to make the existing better; to how to add something new to the existing; through to how to change the existing into something different and better; and, ultimately, how to bring the completely new into being. The emerging new world order demands more of the latter modes of dreaming at more times, in more places. In other words, more daring Idealisation, enabling more radical, ongoing ‘creative destruction’ in the passionate and unrelenting pursuit by leaders to actualise a better world for all, now and going into the future.

Intelligence Mode 4: Action Intelligence – Navigation expressed in lasting Change  

The crux of this intelligence is Navigation.   Action Intelligence encompasses the leadership mastery of bringing about lasting, meaningful Change. Desired futures must be turned into action through affecting real, genuine change.  Traditional change management, premised on linearity and predictability, is longer good enough in the emerging new world order characterised by increasing discontinuous, radical change, heightened complexity, snow balling chaos, deepening ambiguity, and widening seamlessness. Change now has taken on a pervasive and chaotic nature, non-linear in nature, and highly unpredictable in its outcome.

Under these conditions the truly, action intelligent leader will be using a reflective, action research and learning change process  as his/ her frame of reference in navigating the change journey in order to affect lasting change. This change navigation process will be made up of successive cycles of: (i) exploration, (ii) discovery, (iii) application, and (iv) learning/ reflection. In addition, Action intelligent leaders will leverage this process from real time, in-time intelligence, generated as the change journey unfolds in order to navigate successfully to the desired, end state. Simultaneously, they are guided by and/ or craft action relevant, expertise by applying their Conceptual Intelligence masterfully during the unfolding change journey.

Intelligence Mode 5: Contextual Intelligence – Fit expressed in an appropriate Interpretative Framework

The crux of this intelligence is Fit. Contextual Intelligence pertains to crafting an appropriate Interpretative Framework (i.e., a way of seeing and dealing with the world), enabling a constructive engagement by a leader at the requisite level of complexity with the context, such that the leader and his/ her context are well matched. The leader with high Contextual Intelligence understands that he/ she are embedded in a context with which they have to engage, their operating arena: the world at large, their operating arena; and their chosen role(s) as a Leader.  For that they need, the ‘right set of glasses’.

Intelligent leaders understand clearly from which vantage point (i.e., the appropriate Interpretative Framework) they are engaging with respect to their context in terms of: (i) an explicitly adopted world view (i.e. right understanding of the nature and dynamics of the world they engaging with); (ii) the decision-making framework they use (i.e. how to make recognise situations for what they are, in order to make the right decisions); and (iii) the value orientation they have adopted (i.e. what is important, rightful and desirable).


In our current Knowledge Society the search is on for ‘intelligent’ leaders who can transform, at an increasingly rapid rate and deeper levels, Experiences into information, Information into Knowledge, and Knowledge into Wisdom, and vice versa.

Intelligent leaders have  a strong, resilient, well crystalised, authentic Identity (=Personal and Interpersonal Intelligence); have  a deep Conceptual Understanding of the expertise making up their field, and growing that expertise (=Cognitive Intelligence); are masterful at Idealisation by conceiving increasingly more daring and inspiring dreams, in this way triggering creative destruction that will leave behind more lasting, worthy legacies (=Spiritual Intelligence); bring about lasting, meaningful change because they think and act in terms of an intelligence-guided, reflective action research and learning process (=Action Intelligence); and, engage constructively, at the requisite level  of complexity, with their context through a carefully chosen, appropriate Interpretative Framework which make them exceedingly fit for, and matched to, their context (=Contextual Intelligence).

In lieu of the above, two critical questions come to the fore for leaders in the emerging, new world order: firstly, does each leader know what his/ her level of ‘intelligence’ is? Secondly: does each leader have a plan of action on how to nurture and grow his/ her intelligence if it is so mission critical for leadership excellence in the emerging, new world order?




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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