The urgent need for sophisticated leadership
by Blair Sheppard and Susannah Anfield
The pandemic has highlighted a series of paradoxes inherent to the work of leaders. What comes next will depend on how well they face up to them.
In the 2019 PwC Global Crisis SurveyPDF, 69 percent of respondents said they expected a global crisis in the next five years, most likely due to a financial meltdown or technology failure. Little did they know how prescient they were. Just nine months after the survey was released, an entirely different and unexpected medical and public health crisis — COVID-19 — has fundamentally altered the world. If driving change in the uncertain and turbulent environment that existed at the beginning of 2020 was a complex challenge, the degree of difficulty has now been ramped up significantly.
As we recently noted in these pages, five global forces — asymmetry of wealth, disruption, age disparities, polarization, and loss of trust — which together we’ve termed ADAPT, were already changing the way millions of people live and work. The pandemic has sharply accelerated these forces. As a result, organizations have even less time than they thought to reconfigure themselves so that they can maintain their viability in a vastly changed world. In our forthcoming book, we predict that humanity has “ten years to midnight.” But with events moving so quickly, it seems there may be even less time until the fateful hour. The good news is that by recognizing the challenges confronting society, internalizing the lessons of the pandemic, and deploying the tools and technologies at hand, we can chart a new, more adaptive course. But doing so is going to place a fresh set of demands and intense pressures on leaders.
Around the world, leaders, already stretched in all directions, have never faced so many dilemmas to navigate and contradictions to reconcile. Beyond dealing with the familiar aspects of their business, they now have to cope with the most fundamental of issues: health, well-being, safety, and financial viability. And the trade-offs are excruciating. Answers appear to conflict with each other, leading to decisions that have every likelihood of being wrong. Many companies may feel like they must return to business as normal in order for their industries, communities, and economies to survive; but the very act of returning to familiar ways of working could inhibit the ability of all these entities to succeed in the future. The speed of decision making has picked up. Decisive, or seemingly prudent, moves taken a month ago — even a week ago — can quickly become redundant, or worse, appear reckless. In a world of endless todays, medium- and long-term planning feels futile, and the scope of short-term planning is reduced to a matter of hours. Yet it is exactly in such times that people look to leaders to provide stability, hope, and a path forward. Crises like the one we’re experiencing are a crucible from which the true capabilities of leaders emerge and reputations are forged.
As we first noted in 2018, in our analysis of the Six paradoxes of leadership, successful leaders today must embody and negotiate a set of apparent contradictions in order to thrive in a rapidly changing world. They must have the confidence to project a clear strategy, and the humility to correct course and recognize the need for change. They must also be as adroit at surveying the landscape from 30,000 feet as they are at making sure operations function well on the ground. They must remain rooted in the traditions that made their organizations successful while continuously embracing innovation. They should consider what they need their workforce to achieve, and then effectively use enabling technology to help do it. They have to think globally while acting locally. And they must demonstrate the ability to negotiate differing viewpoints toward a consensus while maintaining their integrity.
As the world seeks systematically to repair and reconfigure from the collective trauma and damage being suffered due to COVID-19 — and to prepare itself to be resilient in future crises — there is an urgent need for leaders to understand, accept, and embrace these paradoxes.
The steps required are:
- Repair: The need to act quickly and intelligently
- Rethink: Design the present with the future in mind
- Reconfigure: Organizing for the future