Leadership Skills for Uncertain Times (Part 4)
Reflections on changes and leadership skills for current COVID-19 and post-COVID environment. Part 4 discusses how everyone plays a part.
[Day 25 of #30dayschallenge]
Today is the final part of a four-part series that was inspired by an UNSW Business School alumni event which I attended, on the Business of Recovery.
During the Q&A part of the session, all the panel-members answered a question about how to deal with all the uncertainties that COVID-19 has unleashed.
Even though they all gave different responses, what stuck with me is how they are also the same — i.e. amidst all the changes, what are the things that haven’t changed?
Right now, businesses have to deal not only with COVID-19, but also with geo-political, economical, regulatory, and social uncertainties, all happening con-currently — something that has not happened before.
I think that we need to first acknowledge that no one really knows how things would unfold — and to run the other way fast when anyone asserts otherwise.
[Sidenote: You may be surprised as I am, to find out some of the garbage that is being distributed online, a worrying trend that was brought home to me by my 17-year-old daughter when recently showed me a doomsday/COVID-19 conspiracy video that came up on her instagram feed, cleverly edited with voiceovers by experts such as Bill Gates and others.]
I’ve become very selective about my information diet, because I realised that my old pattern of keeping abreast with what’s happening with the world through traditional media and other “reputable” sources is causing more confusion than certainty.
Just tune in to any topic, and you are likely to find at least two opposing positions, plus commentary/analysis/assertions about why the other side is wrong. No solutions. Just lots of arguing.
There is also the never-ending cycle about the next unfolding crisis that need our urgent attention, both pandemic and non-pandemic related.
Having said that, there’s also a lot of wisdom and wise words out there.
Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, the NZ director-general of health, has become the unlikely hero of New Zealand’s coronavirus crisis, earning thousands of fans online and being nominated for the country’s highest honour.
New Yorkers and others sought comfort by listening to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefings.
When it comes to reliable, scientific information about the virus, many Americans have turned to Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for guidance.
“I have a reputation, as you probably have figured out, of speaking the truth at all times and not sugar-coating things,” he told the Financial Times in an interview on 10 July. “And that may be one of the reasons why I haven’t been on television much lately.” — Instead he now appears on livestreams and podcasts.
I was deeply moved by Tedros Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, in a speech where he held back tears, and called for leadership and solidarity at the global level and national levels to fight the pandemic:
“How is it difficult for humans to unite and fight a common enemy that is killing people indiscriminately?” he asked. “Are we unable to distinguish or identify the common enemy? Can’t we understand that the divisions and the cracks between us are an advantage for the virus?”
Dealing with Uncertainties
With all the noise out there, I think I’ve become more discerning about who I listen to, and have also learned to tune in to truth that is hidden amongst the many untruths out there.
I’ve also learnt to listen more deeply to what’s beneath the words.
More and more I’m finding commonalities rather than differences — which was exactly what happened to me the other day at the webinar.
When asked about about how businesses should deal with uncertainties, the panel members’ responses were as follows (paraphrased by me):
Don’t focus on the short term
Psychologically, if we were to focus on the short term, then we are going to feel every little speed bump. This is the same as a business. Rather than obsess about the short term uncertainties, focus on how things will look like when we come out of COVID-19.
Taking the long view
Canadian pension fund investors have a famous saying,
“We are not investing for the next quarter, but for the next quarter century.”
For pension fund investors, taking an exceptionally long investment horizon shapes how they view opportunities and risk — and allows them to make investments that others can’t.
In the current environment, there is a wide variance of projections about the COVID-19 impact, even amongst highly sophisticated investors. But taking the long view means that the short term variances does not matter as much.
Start with Why
Businesses focus too much on the how and the what, rather than their Why.
Having a clear picture of the business’s reason for being (beyond profit), will bring clarity in times of uncertainties.
What Hasn’t Changed
For me, it became clear to me that no matter how fast the world appears to be spinning, and how crazy everything seems, there are things that never change.
And if I look back at the history of the human civilisation, we were always driven by progress and seeking to improve our lives.
Sure, some of our progress may have unintended consequences and things didn’t quite pan out in the long run — but that’s the nature of complexity (discussed in Part 3)
I’m sure the scientists who discovered nuclear power did not intend for it to be used to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
When I look back at my own live, I have no doubt that it is through my greatest challenges that I’ve grown the most.
In Part 1 of this series, I wrote that boards and senior business leaders are very aware that technological and other shifts always present both risks and opportunities (i.e. headwinds or tailwinds).
I think the same can be said of our current crisis (or crises).
I have no doubt that amongst the many challenges, this is also a call for us to step up and bring about the change that we want to see in the world.
When I think about the underlying theme of many of these trends (that we’ve discussed throughout this series), the call that I’m hearing is for greater collaboration, inclusion and innovation.
This is also borne out in the key take-aways from the webinar (that I received yesterday from the organisers):
- As a result of COVID-19 enforced isolation, panellists felt that board decision making has become more agile and collaboration is thriving. Business segments not previously viable are now new frontiers.
- However, there’s danger that working digitally may be causing loss of professional peripheral vision, and conquering the new frontiers requires more than a business model realignment, it requires people being equipped to lead in a new way.
- The notion that the CEO’s job is to make as much money as possible for the company is well and truly gone. The notion that we’re responsible for each other, that we do and want to care for each other has arrived.
Stepping up is not just a leader’s job — it is everyone’s responsibility.
I believe that COVID-19 is part of a broader shift. Increasingly, the challenges that we face require humanity to step up — to collaborate at a scale that we’ve never done before, to act as a global collective, and for the greater good.
It requires each of us to do our part.
Let’s step up. Together.
If you’re interested in exploring this topic, I’m hosting a conversation on The crisis of leadership and a new way forward on Saturday, 29 August 2020 at 2 PM AEST.
Find out more and register at: