Leadership is one of the most over used terms and one of the least understood bodies of study. To most people leadership is an abstract concept about people in authority. We instantly think of Kings and Queens, Generals and Presidents, celebrity CEO’s and pioneering activists. But leadership in a time of crisis makes it fundamentally consequential.
Over the last decade democracy has been questioned and authoritarianism is on the rise. Today 52% of countries are run by an autocratic leader. Democracy is on the decline. The rise of right wing nationalism and populism cannot be ignored. If left unchecked it has the potential to turn democratic and peaceful nations into totalitarian states faster than a Californian wildfire. Even the US risks spiralling out of control. Its truth serum having been poisoned.
The backdrop to these political challenges lies in a series of crises that have stoked the flames of extremism while creating a universally insecure populace. This insecurity affects every walk of life from workers to soldiers, politicians to doctors, and parents to children.
You could argue that as a western society we have been in a constant state of crisis since the change of the millennium. The rise of China was perhaps one of the earlier challenges to the twenty first century west. On top of this, society was hammered by the economic shocks of 2007 and 2008, followed by years of austerity measures, cuts in public services and levels of automation that created a generation of part time workers and zero hours employees.
The US and the UK turned to populist leaders and nationalist causes. The US channeled its fears into a Trumpian philosophy for building walls and keeping out immigrants. The UK channeled its fears toward Brexit. Like all ideologies, they either get bigger and darker or get swept aside by the tides of change. For Mussolini the tide was America joining the war. For Trump it was Coronavirus.
The concern many people have is that right at the point where crises seem to come thicker and faster with every new year, it also appears that we have lost the ability to develop great leaders. And right as we are lurching from crisis to crisis - think Covid, then economic downturn, then global heating, pollution, extreme weather events and biodiversity collapse. It’s not surprising that 21st century western societies are riddled with fear and subsumed with insecurity.
Something needs to break the mould. We have to exit the pattern of fear and insecurity or the world will continue to succumb to dictators and authoritarians no matter whether in government, business or life. And vital marches of progress such as the me too movement and black lives matter will continue to get smothered.
Philosophers once stated that boredom was the opium of the masses. Today we need be careful of fear becoming a cudgel against the masses.
We need a new philosophy. A new approach to leadership. A new outlook on our planet. We need hope. Because hope is the only way to summon the stamina and collective spirit that will be required to get through the enormous challenges of our time and the state of our planet. But hope can only succeed if it is powered by competence and success. Hope in a time of crisis must be peppered with facts and results. It is effective execution that sustains hope and enables it to take hold.
We are all currently managing in a state of crisis, and crisis management requires a different approach. It is much more hands on and fact based. We could follow the example of successful entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs manage their ideas in a constant state of crisis until the point where their business gets so big that they can either sell it or step back and let others deal with the endless day to day challenges. The chances of getting there are one in a million. Winning the lottery might be easier.
Successful entrepreneurs know that managing a startup is all about focus. There are a very few things a new company can do to succeed and there are a plethora of opportunities for it to fail. A series of icebergs are just waiting to sink the ship. So entrepreneurs become masters at relentlessly honing in on the few things that might make them successful, while predicting icebergs and avoiding them.
Focus is everything. In the early stages it's focusing on developing a business plan and raising seed money. Then it's building a product or service. Next figuring out how to price and sell the product. And if that works it’s about building teams, operations and finances that scale - while keeping the early customers as happy as possible. Any one distraction can make this house of cards collapse and ruthless competition can arrive at any time and from anywhere.
All entrepreneurs know that to succeed they require focus, flexibility and an endless supply of hope. Persistence and attention to detail the tools for survival. Truth and measurement beacons of progress.
It seems as though these entrepreneurial traits might be what is required at all levels of leadership today. Government leaders will need to focus one hundred percent of their personal effort and political capital on getting vaccines rolled out. Nothing else matters until seventy percent of their population has been fully vaccinated. The rest they can delegate. It will be hard for them to hide from the numbers or spin their way through poor execution. None of them can realistically dodge this bullet.
And yet they will need to remain flexible because things can change. We might experience new mutations of the disease while they will still have to dodge other crises that come their way. The key is to remain focused on solving the main problem while flexible enough to adapt and avoid the other icebergs. Once one crisis has been dealt with they will need to get ready to handle the next.
If focus and flexibility are the key traits required to manage in this time of crisis then hope must become the new drug for the masses. Not fear or boredom. Hope.
This is where diverse teams can become powerful. There is nothing more challenging than solving big problems and managing through times of crisis. Diverse perspectives can make the difference.
In a crisis leadership is required at all levels. You can quickly spot a great football team. They have leaders all over the pitch and they operate in perfect harmony. As one. Belief driving hope and hope overcoming fear and down cycles. Lean, mean fighting machines.
This is what the new organisation needs to look like. With leaders all over the pitch and an organisation in perfect harmony. As synchronous as Starling flying in the evening sky. If focus provides the direction then flexibility provides synchronicity. Hope keeps everyone together. The more hope you have and the better focus you enjoy the more diverse the crowd can be.
And crowd management is enabled by truth. Competent leaders stare truth in the face and do not shy away from it. Their careful planning, total focus and consistent execution means truth becomes their ally and not the enemy. And truth is a Viagra for hope.
If there is one thing that we might learn from this horrific period, and from the anti-democratic consequences pursuant, is that diversity is key. It could be that diversity will prove to be a vaccine for the climate crisis. Biodiversity development our way out. But human diversity must lead. And while diversity could save us from the climate crisis it might also get to save democracy.
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