Future leaders will need a compass, not a map

In an uncharted world of exponential change driven by technology, marketing leadership means depending on judgement as much as data, and personality as much as skills.


When discussing leaders and leadership, it’s a good idea to be clear about definitions. There are 17,623 search results on Amazon when you search for marketing leadership. On Google, there are 267 million results.

Combine that with the millions spent annually by would-be leaders on leadership development courses, and I think we can argue that marketing leadership is important to marketers, but it’s hard to define it in a way that is satisfactory to everyone. Indeed, the very concept of leadership appears elusive.

The second challenge in talking about marketing leadership is the persistent view that marketing leaders are born, not made. A commonly held view is that leaders possess a special set of qualities such as vision, energy, dynamism, inspiration, courage, charisma and so on. The ‘born leader’ theory is myth as it implies that one cannot be taught to be a leader: either one is born with the skills to be a leader or not.

READ MORE: Thomas Barta – A leader’s biggest asset is their ability to inspire

When I look at my own career, learning to lead was not simply a matter following how-tos, or some recipe. I certainly would not say I was born into it. Many people who knew me years ago would say that I could barely run a bath, let alone a marketing team.

So, what does the marketing leader of the future look like? The starting point is actually what sort of person you are. I agree with leadership guru Warren Bennis, that the process of becoming a leader is the same process that makes a person a healthy, integrated, normal human being. This starting point means that we must work harder on ourselves than on our individual jobs to develop our capability, credibility and confidence. We must work on our sense of self and our emotional intelligence.

This the only way that you can really begin to develop the base characteristics of any leader: having a clear and compelling vision, inspiring trust and commitment, choosing a team, being in tune with the customer and not just being an agent of change, but making change happen.

The right marketing leadership characteristics will only come when you have worked on your personal character. That is why marketing leadership will continue to be an art not a science – it is not a place of routinised endeavours. Working on your character is an ongoing process, so individual practitioners of the art of leadership will always be works in progress that are never finished.

The future of marketing leadership

Probably the biggest challenge of the future marketing leader is working out what the world is going to look like and how marketing leadership will fit into that world. The simplest, easiest framework I can think of is, no matter what, all future marketing leadership roles will consist of ‘your brand plus tech’.

Technology is a tsunami of change, not just in marketing, and marketing leaders will have to find a way to either surf on top of this wave or be crushed by it.

Marketing leaders have to anticipate a world where bandwidth is unlimited and where unexpected convergences in sensors, networks, AI, robotics, 3D printing, virtual reality and augmented reality will create new business models.

Maps are only good in known worlds that have been charted. Compasses are perfect for when you’re not sure where you are going.

In other words, what impossibility might soon become possible and how do you anticipate the impossible? The problem is that our brains are literally hardwired to think locally and linearly. As such, it’s nearly impossible for us to fathom the implications of exponential change.

The guide metaphor that I believe works to navigate the future for leaders is ‘maps versus compasses’. Maps are only good in known worlds that have been charted. Compasses are perfect for when you’re not sure where you are going. Marketing leaders of the future will have to develop their own personal compass to gain their sense of direction, and forget the idea of a reliable map.

READ MORE: Do you have the Anatomy of a Leader?

This leads to another strand that will grow to be even more important in marketing leaders: making decisions. Conventional wisdom considers it a valuable skill to be able to make judgements as quickly as possible, and make data-based decisions. This may be right when it comes to managers but is it right for leaders?

Real marketing leaders must make judgements that are often based as much on gut feeling as on precise data analysis and testing. Judgement is often the key element of effective marketing leadership. Of course, judgement should always be informed by fact and analysis but, just like today, the marketing leader of the future will know that in most decision-making situations, the facts and analysis available are at best incomplete and at worst out-and-out wrong.

I agree with the idea that leaders need to use data, but to me, creative imagination will become a defining characteristic. The marketing leader of the future has to be able to imagine the opportunity and the effect of different technologies, and be able to accurately play out combinations in his or her mind. Given the exponential pace of change, if you can only work with tangible concrete data, you may well fail as a leader. It will be far too time-consuming, far too risky and far too expensive to wait for data-based decisions.

So, the marketing leader might have to arrive at decisions slowly and not rush to judgement until circumstances force them to form an opinion without recourse to all the facts. I call it being comfortable with ‘grey’ rather than ‘black or white’.

Transforming recruitment

The final point of marketing leadership in the future will revolve around hiring. Today, marketing recruitment is particularly broken. We are asked to first rigidly define the responsibilities of a position, and then try to find a human beings to match this preconceived job description. Even worse is the expectation that we are going to find experts with years of experience for technologies that have been in existence barely a couple of years.

READ MORE: How collaboration between marketing and HR is fuelling career success at GSK

It is as though marketing and HR believe that talented people are being stamped out by a machine with certain mechanical specifications. Of course, it’s not true: we know that new skills are going to be required that we cannot even imagine today, just like we could not imagine a ‘social media manager’ role 10 years ago. Instead, we are going to have to become comfortable finding the best person for the job with reasonable competence and make the trade-off that they are going to learn on the job. Great people, not great job descriptions, make brands successful.

What won’t change? The day-to-day. Of all the career capital that we can develop as marketers, marketing leadership may well be the most rare and precious. Unfortunately, many leadership theories give the impression that leadership is some sort of glamorous calling. The real marketing leader of today or the future won’t be fooled by this.

If you want glamour, try acting or modelling. But, if you want to make a real impact, just like today, the marketing leader of the future will still need to roll up their sleeves and perform tasks which are putatively beneath them.

The real marketing leader of today and the future understands that the basics of knowing your trade and working hard will continue to count.