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How the coronavirus is redefining leadership in business and beyond

  • Knowledge
How the coronavirus is redefining leadership in business and beyond

As Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, said, “Do you want to be the leader that looks back in time and says you were on the wrong side of the argument when the world was crying out for a solution?”

With this global, fast-moving crisis that is affecting every aspect of daily life, leaders in business and beyond are presented with extraordinary challenges. They are looked towards to provide solutions and courage in a climate that breeds uncertainty and fear; to make the toughest of decisions; and to pivot plans – be they short or long-term – that were ultimately designed for a pre-pandemic world that no longer exists.

While recasting more generic crisis management frameworks and leadership advice will have been the first step for many, there can be no denying that the current situation requires a more radical rethink of what really defines great leadership.

The good news is that any leader who has had their finger on the pulse in recent years should already have practice in adapting to rapid change. The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in 2018 that “the pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again.” He was alluding to the fast-emerging global megatrends that are coming to define the Anthropocene: the rapid advancements of digital technologies like Artificial Intelligence; increasing rates and speeds of globalisation and urbanisation; climate change impacts being felt harder than ever before; mounting calls for new purpose-driven systems where people and planet are valued alongside profit.

It had already been said repeatedly that the emerging generation of great leaders will seek opportunities in these challenges – none of which have been solved holistically by lockdowns. Now, to go down in history as true leaders, people will need to be…

Honest, holistic and unafraid to be human 

In times defined by uncertainty and anxiety, urges to placate panic by downplaying the situation or failing to disclose full details can be strong. But almost all modern crisis leadership frameworks advise acceptance and communication as first steps. Without these, action will not be aligned with the scale of the challenge or carried out calmly and consistently.

Greta Thunberg’s climate strike movement gained popularity not only for the emotional pull which young people hold on older generations, but because it forces leaders to admit crisis and, in turn, act accordingly.

Guides on approaching the coronavirus crisis specifically also have an emphasis on the human touch in common. By showing up to the crisis as a full human being rather than a job title, leaders pave the way to take care of people across their entire value chain, accept responsibility and encourage communication. The phrase ‘a business is only as good as its people’ had been frequently used pre-pandemic, but has now taken on a new level of meaning, given that many are recalibrating their priorities with wellbeing and community in mind.

It has often been said that women are typically socialised to practice honesty and emotiveness more than men. Then, it comes as little surprise that the countries receiving international praise for their approach to the coronavirus pandemic – like New Zealand, Taiwan and Finland – have heads of state who are women. This is not to say that all women are inherently better leaders than men, or that men cannot possess these traits, but simply that men will need to dismantle any internalised urges towards stoicism.

Embodiments of agility who rise above fragility  

During a recent Positive Luxury webinar, IMAGINE co-founder and former Unilever CEO Paul Polman emphasised the need for adaptability in the current climate and beyond. He explained that sitting with discomfort without becoming defensive is essential to agility.

Polman is widely regarded as the father of modern corporate social responsibility (CSR), a format in which brands position social, ethical and environmental considerations at the core of their business model rather than as an add-on or separate silo. This embedded model of CSR has created benefits across the triple bottom line for Unilever. But if everyone’s job involves CSR, there is the possibility that CSR professionals will render themselves obsolete. In other words, Polman was willing to create a situation where he would give up not only his Unilever role but any chance of progression elsewhere, purely because the change would create benefits spanning far beyond one role or career.

While the importance of continual learning to great leadership has been stated time and again, Polman also urged a similar focus on unlearning processes, behaviours, assumptions or false ‘facts’ which will not create positive outcomes in the new normal. Thought leaders across the green economy are calling for a clean break from previous notions of ‘business-as-usual’. Investors, policymakers, business leaders and citizens are joining them. Those who fail to lean in risk rendering their role or even entire organisation obsolete, Polman believes, be it through reputational damage, unpreparedness for legislation changes, or otherwise.

Thinking systematically   

For businesses and individuals alike, it was easy to overlook the interconnected nature of our modern world pre-pandemic. Citizens in the UK and US could, in January, write COVID-19 off as a faraway problem. The systems that bred this dismissal are the same causing growing disconnect between supply chains and businesses.

The fact that a novel virus could so rapidly cross the species border and spread from Wuhan to almost all nations forces greater consideration of our dependence on nature, and on international travel and trade. The fact that vulnerable groups are relying on family, friends and neighbours for things like groceries and medicine forces greater considerations of our reliance on communities, and the ways this has been downplayed.

Additionally, pre-existing breaks in global, national and local systems are now being extremely clear. Disparities between rich and poor; white and minority ethnic; consumers and producers – disparities that will not be quickly forgotten post-pandemic, and forever harder to overlook or downplay – have been writ large. Great leaders will, therefore, not shirk responsibility for any negative impacts in their value chain. They will recognise the interconnectivity of systems and face the fact that changing them for better requires thinking and acting outside of their typical roles, during the pandemic and beyond.

Courageous in collaboration 

Once an individual or organization has adopted systems thinking, they will realise the full potential of partnerships and the necessity of collective action in bringing about the level of change required to create a more sustainable, socially equal and resilient world. The UN’s 17th and final Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) is notably Partnerships for the Goals, without which none of the others could be achieved.

Outdated models of leadership involve maintaining a closed environment to protect economic competitiveness and shield from outside questioning. Modern leaders recognise the potential of partnerships to share knowledge, build reach and scale voice. On the former, the UK’s biggest supermarket, Tesco, is taking science-based sustainability guidance from WWF. On reach and scale, more people will see – and governments will take more seriously – campaigns mounted by intra-industry or cross-industry coalitions like the World Green Building Council or We Mean Business Coalition.

And in the current situation, partnerships have had to be forged more rapidly than ever before. Governments have partnered with businesses to spur progress on vaccine creation and ventilator improvements. Businesses are (in the best case scenarios) adapting, maintaining or forging new non-profit partnerships in what is an extremely trying time for the third sector.

Now the value of purposeful partnerships has been realised at scale, it cannot be unseen. As IMAGINE’s co-founder and CEO Valerie Keller summarised, “The courageous collective is the new frontier of leadership.”

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Written by - Sarah George

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