As you know, the last five years have been tough on leaders. Really tough.

Pandemic or no pandemic, every leader has realized we’re not in Kansas anymore. In fact, we’re not quite sure where we are.

Which is the point of this post.

Where exactly are we as a culture, as a society? As leaders? And what can we expect in the next decade?

Most of us like to know the future because it gives us some resemblance of control. If you can predict human behavior or world events, you can prepare.

Add to that the responsibility those of us in leadership today have for the next generation, and it adds to the urgency that we make some wise moves now.

As the post-pandemic world takes shape, there’s a lot of uncertainty. But that doesn’t mean we’re without clues.

As uncertain as things are (and they are), here are 5 things every leader should be watching and preparing for in the decade ahead.

1. The Current Instability Will Continue 

As much as you long for a return to normal, that’s unlikely to happen.

Politically, economically, socially and culturally, normal was dying long before COVID. The disruption of a global pandemic was the final nail in normal’s coffin.

While it’s tempting to think that post-COVID, the world will stabilize, that’s unlikely to happen.

The economy is doing strange things (witness housing prices, the stock market and growing income inequality). Politics is becoming more volatile, and new media and technology keep driving change.

If you read books like George Friedman’s The Storm Before the Calm, you realize that there have always been times of great disruption. Friedman argues we are heading into a decade of deep disruption as we move into a new era of economic and institutional (political) change that will stabilize in the 2030s. While I don’t agree with everything he says, Friedman’s analysis certainly makes sense of a lot of things that don’t make sense, including this: The world is increasingly unstable and will likely be that way for a while.

When no one knows exactly what will happen, what do you do?

Agility is the best antidote to instability. Because agile leaders aren’t committed to a particular model, they’re able to preserve their mission.

The world will always have a need for the basics: Food, water, housing, health, safety, meaning, connection, love dignity. The methods may change, but leaders who stay focused on the mission will thrive.

2. People Will Act More Selfishly

There is a looming post-pandemic surge in which people who have not been allowed to do things for over a year will decide they’re going to do whatever they want once all restrictions lift (or, in some cases, before).

You’ve already seen that in people breaking rules, hoarding pre and post-pandemic (different things, but still hoarding) jumping vaccine lines, bidding up house prices, booking vacations, boats, bikes, campsites, SUVs or anything else they’ve fixed their hearts on to make sure they get what they want.

It’s prudent to prepare for a season where most adults act like teenagers for a while, doing what they want to do when they want to do it.

As you’ve probably already realized, self-centered people are often angry people. Which makes selfishness doubly tricky to deal with. Just search the comments on any site or on social for evidence of that.

For leaders, the implications are huge. For starters, it means that loyalty will continue to be fickle.

People you could count on to never miss a Sunday or workout five times a week at the gym may not.

The best way to combat this is not to try to change others but to focus on changing yourself.

As a leader, it’s critical for you to get out of your own filter bubble to lead well (I write more on why and how here).

Leaders, if you see the world more broadly, you’ll act less selfishly. You’ll also lead far more capably.

You can’t helpfully address the selfishness of others if you yourself are selfish.

3. Culture Will Remain Deeply Divided

It’s no surprise then, that a selfish culture is a divided culture.

In the same way selfishness divides families and friendships, it divides organizations and nations. And our hyper-individualism (which a year of isolation during the pandemic only intensified) fuels division.

You can see it already in 2021 as Gen Z turns on Millennials for everything from using emojis to skinny clothes to side-parting their hair (btw anyone else notice how many 30-year-olds flipped their hairstyles to a center part overnight?) to Gen Z and Millennials ganging up on Boomers.

In addition, you can see it in voting patterns and activism in different generations and the hostility, resentment and acrimony that’s developed.

What does this mean for leaders?

Unity will be more needed than ever. You’ll win short-term if you demonize the other side, but any victory in that department is false and ill-gotten, especially in the church.

No, the real opportunity will be in leaders who can rise above the division and focus on what unites us, not on what divides us.

Even as you’re reading that, my guess is there’s something inside you that longs for someone to do just that—unite us.

That’s your opportunity.

The culture needs an alternative to itself, not an echo of itself. A divided culture needs a united church.

4. The Moral, Theological and Philosophical Questions Will Become More Intense and Important

Think, for a moment, about all the issues you’re facing as a leader that didn’t really exist a decade ago.

That’s only going to get more intense. And, it’s going to get deeper.

The next decade will require deeper and more thoughtful approaches than ever.

Something as fun sounding as autonomous cars requires an answer to deep philosophical questions.

Water Isaacson’s new book, The Code Breaker, for example, is about Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna gene editing (using CRISPR—short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat) and the future of the human race. The advances in RNA-protein biochemistry, CRISPR biology and genome engineering that are happening right now are breathtaking.

I know very little about biology, gene editing and RNA-protein biochemistry, but I know enough to recognize that it raises profound theological and philosophical questions that are going to require deeply reasoned, highly nuanced philosophical and theological responses. So do autonomous vehicles (who do you hit, and who do you save?) and the rise of AI.

That’s sadly lacking in the thought of today’s church leaders, which, judging from our social media feeds, tends to consist of reactionary, temporary, political and poorly thought-through rants that consistently undermine Christian witness. We live in an era of weakly-formed, strongly-held opinions.

We have to do better.

I long for the day Adam Grant and I imagined in a recent conversation where, because of the quality of thinking, the openness of dialogue and maturity of dialogue inside the church the best thinkers sense get attracted into ministry and church-life rather than get pulled mostly into the professions or business.

Interestingly enough, both Friedman and Isaacson point out that breakthroughs in science, politics and technology often happen through collaboration.

The more hyper-individualized and hyper-polemicized we are, the less like breakthroughs become.

Maybe start here: Meet with someone outside your area of expertise. Invite a physician, mathematician, plumber or architect out to lunch and learn. Work on something together. You’ll be better for it.

5. Deep Leadership Will Be Up to the Challenge. Shallow Leadership Won’t. 

None of this is particularly encouraging. I fully realize that.

In fact, most leaders are perfectly prepared for a world that no longer exists.

But, all of it makes your future leadership even more important.

Leaders unite people when others divide people.

Leaders bring meaning where others only bring confusion.

And leaders find a way forward when others stand still or long to go back.

The key for leaders who thrive will be to develop a deeper, more robust emotional, intellectual and spiritual life.

The deeper you dig in your leadership, the further you and the people you lead will go.

How do you do that?

I’d suggest you open up your learning and understanding. Read more deeply than books published in the last 12 months. Read some history.  Study art. Pick up some Kierkegaard or the desert fathers and mothers or someone like Teresa of Avila.

Study outside your field and understand how others think, not just how you think.

This is hard but good.

And, in the meantime, speak a little less and try to understand a little more. It helps.

Every Leader is a Student Leading a Start-Up

The good news is that in this new era, we’re all students leading start-ups. I am. You are.

If it feels confusing, it’s because it is confusing.

Just know this: With great challenges come great hope and tremendous opportunity.

So start.

Don’t go back, go forward. It will take great humility and great curiosity, but those are the qualities that make great leaders great.

What Do You See Ahead?

What do you see ahead? How are you preparing?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

5 Unsettling Cultural Predictions for the 2020s (And How You Can Prepare Starting Now)

20 Comments

  1. Maureen Small on March 29, 2021 at 10:57 am

    It’s interesting that while you see hyper-individualism increasing, other leading voices are asserting that culture is moving toward “group think” and totalitarianism, where everyone is urged to do what is best for the group and not for themselves. This is what drives the current social justice movement and critical theory including the new government in the U.S.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 30, 2021 at 8:33 am

      Good point. I wonder if the two are connected. As individualists we fear group think and totalitarianism and our loyalties switch in a second. That said, Gen Z thinks more like a group than Gen X or Boomers do as a rule.

  2. Nate on March 29, 2021 at 10:53 am

    Carey, as always, thank you for such meaningful and helpful content. I can see where the disruption of ‘normal’ and the need to work within the instability that follows can result in something great for the church–a return to prayer-fueled dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s power and guidance through unpredictable times. Thank you for challenging us leaders to pursue the kind of leadership that has spent time thinking deeply, wrestling theologically, and which refuses to settle for shallow methodology. I can’t wait to see what God does through this next season; he will remain faithful!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 30, 2021 at 8:33 am

      Thanks Nate. I love that some things never change when everything else is. 🙂

  3. Steve Prudhomme on March 29, 2021 at 10:39 am

    Thank you for being faithful and being willing to address topics that can get messy at times. I value what you challenge us to do. I have been in full time Christian Ministry for 40 plus years. You have been talking about the importance of leaders and organizations to be agile and be able to pivot. I agree that we need to do this. I want you to consider that being agile and pivoting will not be enough for leaders leading into the future. I believe we need to learn what it means to be Anticipatory. What does it mean to be an Anticipatory Ministry, Anticipatory Leaders and how to develop an Anticipatory Culture. Pivoting only allows us to play defense. Responding to ever changing circumstances. Being Anticipatory allows us to play offense. I would love to have a conversation with you or one of your staff to talk about this. (This is not my idea) It is what I am discovering from learning from others. Again, I want to thank you for all you do. Keep looking up! Not looking to go public with this thought? Do what ever you feel you want with what I shared.

    • Rob Koncak on March 29, 2021 at 2:15 pm

      Honest question, I’m also in ministry, is the church really capable of being able to not just anticipate, but actually change quickly to do something about it in a positive way? In my career experience, the church is the most inefficient organization I’ve ever been a part of, including recreation youth sports leagues. I worked in the corporate world for 20 years before ministry and I’m truly floored at the lack of urgency church people have when it comes to making changes in the church.
      There are a few modern churches who pivot well and anticipate well. They’re the only ones growing. But that’s a very small minority. The rest of us are imprisoned to the expectations of people who passed away years ago.

      • Carey Nieuwhof on March 30, 2021 at 8:34 am

        I hear you Rob and I share that concern. Churches often confuse faithfulness with the preservation of methods that stopped working decades ago.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 30, 2021 at 8:37 am

      It’s public now Steve. And that’s a neat distinction. We have tried to pivot in advance of change to stay ahead of it. But I see your point.

  4. Maurice Omulubi Mathu on March 29, 2021 at 10:31 am

    I’m reading this from a village in western Kenya. What applies to you in the fast paced first world is equally happening in the developing. The gap is not as big as you may have thought.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 30, 2021 at 8:36 am

      Maurice…it is SO good to hear from you and what you say echoes what more than a few African leaders have told me. Thank you for your faithful work in Kenya. I will speak out of what I know, but you’re right, we’re moving and more and more to a global culture thanks to technology. Humbled and grateful the insights help.

      Also, I wish every Western leader who tells me “their situation/city/region/suburb/setting is different would read your comment. 🙂

  5. Wil Santen on March 29, 2021 at 8:23 am

    Carey,
    The truth is, that until the church acknowledges that it has largely ignored class struggle, working class vs capitalist class, it will always misunderstand what’s happening.

    Each of the five points you make here indicate to me a working class that’s becoming conscious of its exploitation and oppression. The vast gulf between the hardworking folks struggling in two or three jobs to put food on the table and the so-called “middle” and “upper” classes which they see they will never be able to join.

    This is being revealed as a systemic problem. We have enough food for every human. We have enough houses to house every human. We have the technology to satisfy our basic needs, yet the profits the bosses insist upon are the issue.

    Pastors, you must confront this issue. You must choose. Will you stand with the oppressed working class or will you be apologists and high priests of capitalism?

    Stop critiquing workers for the decisions they are making, and start acknowledging the role the conditions these folks live in play in their lives.

    If you have a hard time connecting these ideas with your life, it’s simply proof of how disconnected you’ve become from the life of an average worker. You see the effects (addiction, divorce, suicide, etc) but refuse to connect it to anything but moral failure. The truth is that much of these social ills are caused by the conditions the capitalist system produces.

    • Daniel on March 29, 2021 at 9:34 am

      Some great food for thought again, Carey. Thank You! For certain, yearning for the “normal” past is futile, and perhaps not even desirable. There will always be change, and only our decisions can make things for the better.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 29, 2021 at 10:27 am

      Wil, thanks for this. I hear you and share a growing concern over this. The inequality on so many levels should be of deep concern to all, especially to Christians.

      • Tom Hopkins on April 15, 2021 at 5:30 pm

        How much inequality was there in the first century Roman Empire? What did Jesus do about it or say about it during his time on earth? What did Christ’s representative, Paul, do or say about it?

    • Phil Williams on March 29, 2021 at 1:21 pm

      Wil, I noticed on your Twitter feed you happily retweeted (15 hours ago) “Christians are easily the most selfish humans on the planet. ”

      Do you really agree with that?

  6. Gary on March 29, 2021 at 7:57 am

    Carey, I love how the ideas you share here are not a list of “do this and everything will be fine” points, but some good places to START turning chaos into calm. Thanks for the encouragement!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 29, 2021 at 10:27 am

      Thanks so much Gary!

    • Lorraine on March 30, 2021 at 11:37 pm

      Until the church congregations step up and walk in common sense we go nowhere- until we become relevant and real and relational we go nowhere. Until we focus on children we go nowhere. Church folk look to buying yet another mask for fashion (and think they hit the jackpot because their neighbor has a cricket and wonder fearfully about the next wave when the world is trafficking children and adults and organs lead by satan at a more than alarming rate than we can think- but overall churches have done nothing about it. Not even focused prayer for those being badly hurt every minute. We don’t see through the smokescreen to what really matters. As you said it will be like this for awhile. The while shortens when true Christians step up in power and authority and see what is really happening so we can fight the battle with open eyes. The LORD has minimal use over people ignoring thing , eyes closed or looking away. He is looking for those with clear sight

  7. David Oliver Willis on March 29, 2021 at 7:56 am

    What a great read this morning. The church has its greatest opportunity to reach so many with more platforms than ever but with so much whirling around simultaneously, our leaders are stuck far in the past, inside themselves, or stifled by indoctrinated ideologies of no valuable depth. Thanks for continuously sharing innovative ideas.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 29, 2021 at 10:27 am

      I love that you see the opportunity in this David. So do I! It’s challenging, but has great promise as well.

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