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What can we learn about leadership through challenge?

What can we learn about leadership through challenge?

2020, the year a pandemic put the world on pause, devastated our economy, changed our way of life and limited our freedoms in ways we could not have imagined.

Crisis is an overused word but I think if we look at the definition – a time of great difficulty or danger – then I think this pandemic counts as a crisis, where the very best and the very worst of us tends to be revealed.

And which of these it turns out to be, is ours to choose.

But amongst the political discourse, media scrutiny and debates on social platforms, some interesting questions have emerged:

  • Why have the responses to COVID 19 in some countries been seemingly more effective in tackling the virus and managing the economy than others?
  • Why have a handful of countries with female leaders fared much better?
  • Why have so many decisions taken by our elected leaders seemed to deepen political and social divides?

I would argue that examples of leading countries through this crisis have begun to shine a light on what we now value in leadership, and may even create a shift in consciousness, or in other words, a new way of thinking, about what we want and expect to see in others (and ourselves).

Particularly now. 6 months in, with 6 more months to go.

The truth is many of us hoped to see the light at the end of the tunnel come September when our children returned to school – for both the sake of our children’s education and future prospects and to reduce the incredible pressure placed on parents to juggle work, family and schooling. Whilst some schools switched to highly structured on-line timetables, many did not, leaving parents and children to get on with it the best they could.

But it is now clear that we are in for another 6 months, a reality that will have hit many of us hard, places even more emphasis on finding a way to thrive, and at the very least, survive financially and deal with the emotional, relational and mental health impacts for families, and for many single households facing the prospect of extended isolation.

And I would argue it is the emotional fall out from COVID 19 poses an even greater crisis for our societies (yet to be tackled) alongside the obvious threat of infection and death for the vulnerable.  Emotional fall out which impacts our attitude, engagement, motivation, clarity and effectiveness. Whilst we can be quick to judge, criticise and mock our elected leaders – how we lead ourselves through such challenges is paramount, if we are to be able to successfully lead others through them.  At home and at work.

So, what can we learn, and what qualities do we need to master?

Listening, collaboration, agility and the ability to self-reflect, innovate and improvise are clearly useful when facing unknowns. As is humility, knowing when we don’t have all the answers, when we need to turn to specialists for input into decision making and to a network for support and guidance. Leaders who listen, who have a base level of credibility and trust, who deliver outcomes from a consistent set of principles have gained support and following irrespective of political bias.

A panel on Radio 4’s recent Rethink programme, put forward that successful outcomes have come down to the quality of the relationship between leaders and the society they represent.  Those who are seen to have done ‘badly’ in their response to the crisis, came to power through divisive rhetoric, cultivating distrust and deep divisions that we are witnessing in USA, and have seen in the UK post Brexit (and I would argue within the devolved governments within the UK). A mindset and culture based on division is always going to struggle to fight a pandemic which by its nature relies so heavily on care, cooperation, respectfulness and pulling together as a community, as one. So the first learning centres on how we cultivate our relationships and networks which provide a base strength required to deal with any challenge that presents itself.

I also think there is a learning about how to manage tensions, evaluate opposing forces, and discern very consciously how we want to carry ourselves through the months ahead. The course of action we choose, and the mindset which underpins it, will have a tendency to place greater or less strain on an already hugely difficult set of circumstances.

Trust (do as I say vs do as I do)

Generally, and more so in times of crisis, people look to (and have high expectations of) their leaders. Much criticism was levelled at Dominic Cummings when he was seen to break Government advice, and there was no consequence or humility. Something which impacted Boris Johnsons credibility, political capital and trust rating as much as Cummings. When teachers experience, knowledge and predictions for the grades of our A levels students were seen to not be trusted (in favour of a well-intentioned but flawed algorithm) there was uproar. People who are trusted, tend to give more, create more, go the extra mile, give the benefit of the doubt more readily and find greater levels of resilience (and forgiveness) amongst their stakeholders when mistakes inevitably do happen. It matters not whether you look at employees, customers, suppliers or society in general, trust has a multiplier effect when it comes to both inputs and outputs.

Alignment (why first vs what)

What is true is that wherever you see results, movement, progress, big leaps forward, there is an alignment of people, purpose, energy and resource that makes action inevitable. A strong “why” makes the how much easier to land. The actions of political leaders in Sweden whilst not in line with those of other countries, was entirely aligned with the values of their society and culture. The result from a public health point of view may or may not turn out to be different, but how they feel about themselves as citizens, and the impact on their economy may well prove to be quite literally in a league of their own.

Responsiveness vs. “wait and see”

This is where agility comes to the fore. Countries, like New Zealand that were agile and flexible in their approach, closed borders, were decisive and took early action with a good level of honesty about the situation and impact, have undoubtedly fared better (and gained trust in the process). Companies across different sectors have also been applauded for their mid-pandemic pivots and creativity. Whether it was repurposing their supply chains, manufacturing ventilators, PPE or hand sanitizer, the likes of General Motors, In Bev, Brew Dog, Zara and Prada have helped to retain staff, grow their customer base and build their reputation.

Complexity vs. simplicity

Making the complex simple is an art, and essential to support honest and critically, two-way communication. In the UK, the government has been widely criticised for its conflicting, disjointed advice and u-turns. In some ways, “stay at home, protect our NHS” was a master stroke of simplicity but it did not appear to have been thought through as part of a longer-term phased approach, balancing both protection of health and prosperity. Short term, reactive, survival-based decision making tends to show up where leaders are driven by a fear of failure and consumed by ego (how they look to others). Confidence is purposeful. It has a more grounded energy. It also knows less is more.

Realness vs. rhetoric

Great leaders are often great storytellers, and communicators. But intention is everything, coming from a place of truth and authenticity rather than agenda (i.e. communicating what is in the interest of oneself vs. what is in the best interest of others) or fear, which leads to withholding at best, and lying at worst. The best leaders remind us that we are stronger together – there are no lone heroes in successful leadership – and they say it as it is. Angela Merkel in Germany was widely credited for her grounded and honest approach at the start of the pandemic. As was Jacinda Ardern for her regular televised briefings and social media updates. At a time when opinion, fear, negativity, blame has dominated the narrative, leadership communications that are honest, real, engaging, down to earth have cut through.

Empowerment vs. control

Encouragement is based in the principle of empowerment. That with support, we can create and succeed, and be trusted and liberated to make decisions for the greater good of ourselves and for others. A mindset which fosters both independence and interdependency on others, rather than dependency on rules, regulations, policies, procedures or penalty to control what we do and do not do. A mindset of encouragement supports us to step up, to give and be more. I personally loved the energy created by a call for public support to the NHS. What happened to the applications I wonder? How was that energy and goodwill harnessed? What happened as a result? And how can we learn from this for the benefit of our communities, our environment and our young people as we go forward? Not because we are paid to do it, or told to do it, but because we care.

Navigating these tensions brings us to some key questions that as leaders we could all do with keeping to the fore:

  • How are we role modelling and managing our own mindset (and seeking support when our clarity, effectiveness and hope falters?)
  • How do we foster a sense of community, belonging, support and care with those around us at work and at home?
  • How do we provide a sense of stability (that makes those around us feel safe) and do what we can with creativity to adapt, move forward and inspire hope?

Creativity and care. These is our work as leaders for the next 6 months.

Nic Crisp is a mother, leadership consultant, exec coach and facilitator. Her second book, The Mindset of Encouragement is about alignment and empowerment at a collective level and written for people who lead people. It is a practical guide for anyone wanting to lead with a lighter touch that has more power. Not the kind of power that comes from hierarchy, rank or titles. But the kind of power that comes from trust, alignment and responsiveness.

The Mindset of Encouragement: how to lead with more power and less control is available on Amazon from 7th September.

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