None of us expected 2020 to be quite like this. Our expectations shattered. Our worldviews changed. Perhaps our organisations upended, our teams under pressure, perhaps unsure of our roles or even ourselves. New decisions. Pressure everywhere. Transformation everywhere.
Exercising leadership in a transforming world is deeply challenging. We need to hold to purpose: people expect us to deliver on goals, on shareholder returns, on policy outcomes, on KPIs. And, they want us to exercise leadership for the wellbeing of our families and communities too. Yet as individuals we usually can’t do this alone: we need to influence others to adapt to the transformation, we need to influence others to lead the transformation too. But in doing this, we also need to lead our selves: to pay attention to our own needs and feelings as we mobilise others towards important outcomes.
It is sobering to remember that organisations and teams who fail to transform as fast as their environment are often doomed. And only purposeful, transformational leadership will avoid that fate. But it’s also reassuring to remember that we can do this: we always have. After all, anyone can exercise leadership anywhere, anytime: leadership is an activity anyone can choose to exercise: more than ever, leadership is not a position description.
Excellent leadership begins with diagnosing what’s going on for everyone involved. What are our own feelings about the transformation required? What uncertainties do we face? What uncertainties are others facing? Every decision we make is a choice between competing values and outcomes: every decision probably means a loss for someone – even if hidden within a so-called “win/win” transformation.
Exercising leadership in transforming times probably means disappointing people. Many of us secretly long for the “BC” (Before Covid) years. Many of us liked the apparent security and stability we thought we had in our lives, in our jobs. Leading people out of that security and stability and into a “With Covid World” may create a sense of disappointment, a sense of loss, perhaps even trauma. Good leaders help address that loss, perhaps heal that trauma, perhaps transform the loss to hope and optimism. Good leaders do this by energising others, by connecting to purpose, by regulating emotional temperature, by fostering trust, and by being vulnerable enough to seek input from multiple perspectives – not just the safe viewpoints of the comfortable voices.
As we lead self, lead others and hold to purpose, we may face the temptation of being the “hero leader”: the fount of knowledge, the source of truth. Yet if we truly want to lead transformation, we need to work out how to engage with the views of others: safely, non-judgmentally, productively. Perhaps this means gathering a team of diverse colleagues to wrestle with a challenge. Perhaps this means throwing out our challenge to someone with a completely different background or worldview. Perhaps it means leading ourselves to let go of some cherished belief. Perhaps it’s all of these.
The world has always been transforming around us, and we’ve always needed to adapt to survive. Right now the transformation is at warp-speed. And so the leadership we exercise needs to swiftly adapt too: our BC thoughts of leadership may need updating. We owe it to ourselves to take time to think about the way we exercise leadership. To reframe leadership of ourselves and of others, and to reconsider and hold to purpose in the current world.
Because only through exercising purposeful leadership can we hope that the new world currently emerging is better than the BC world we used to inhabit. We owe it to ourselves to exercise that leadership.
Richard Dent OAM is Chair of TLN.