It’s time to rethink leadership

The coronavirus crisis has exposed shortcomings in our leaders

As the coronavirus reached such proportions that it has fallen into the category of a global crisis, it is unfortunate that we fell into our usual habit of denying or deferring the arrival of unpalatable new realities in the hopes that they would somehow go away. Now, the waters of change that were cresting on the horizon have become a full-blown tsunami crashing over our heads.

Leaders at every level have been challenged to handle the crisis. The initial response to the virus was complacency. Unfortunately, this complacency has cost the world, and the United States, dearly. Regrettably too, at this point there is minimal global cooperation. Finger-pointing abounds, and most countries are selecting their own strategies for coping. Public life across the planet is being severely curtailed, and every aspect of what was “normal life” is being totally disrupted and deconstructed.

As the crisis mounts, no one can accurately predict the outcome. What is observable, however, is the effectiveness — or lack thereof — those in leadership positions. History will no doubt document these times with its usual unforgiving pen. Hindsight, as we know, is a cruel master.

Leading in a time of crisis requires multiple skills. These include the ability to be calm in the face of disaster, the courage to speak to reality, an ability to think systemically, critical-thinking skills to create clarity out of ambiguity and uncertainty, an empathic appreciation of human nature, good communication skills and sensitive timing. These capacities and skills are needed in so-called normal times, however during times of crisis, this need is magnified. Alas, many leadership programs go no way near training erstwhile leaders in these skills.

Forbes magazine recently reported that in 2019 leadership training was a $366 billion global industry. It cited reports from McKinsey and others as to why most leadership development and training programs fail. The causes for these failures, they claim, is the “one-size-fits-all” mentality of most training programs.

Another fault, they say, is that they ignore context and emphasize content where it is really context that matters most.

They also point out that there is too much reflection and insufficient opportunities for application, plus insufficient attention is paid in how to shift a culture’s mindset to face changing realities. They conclude that concepts need to be tied to current events, and ideas, tied to action that address real world challenges for leadership programs to have real impact.

Although there are more leadership books and theories than one can shake a stick at, few of these are well-suited to providing sound, pragmatic advice. More than ever, the onus on leaders will be to pay attention to the environment, to think systemically and to help people develop, adapt and navigate continuous change. Leaders will need to know how to be calm and find clarity among the chaotic twists and turns of reality, and the lightning speed with which these twists and turns manifest themselves.

While the coronavirus has our total attention, other new realities are also arriving. Can leaders find the bandwidth to be attentive to these new waters cresting on the horizon? If we think that once the coronavirus problem has been solved that we will go back to the old normal we had, better think again. Yesterday’s solutions tend to become tomorrow’s problems.

We had better be awake, and leaders need to help hold our feet to the fire to deal with the continuous reality of new realities.

It is time to rethink leadership, its purpose, and the capacities and skills that are required to follow through. While leadership should be a shared endeavor, so that one person does not have to do all the heavy lifting and has to have all the needed capacities and skills, leaders often fail to partner with people who might put a shadow on their limelight.

As the wise Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933) said way back in the 1920s, we shun integration and cooperation because it does not give us the thrill of victory. On that note, lets add another capacity to the list of requisites of leadership — humility!

Annabel Beerel, Ph.D., is principal of Ethical Leadership Consulting and is the author of “Ethical Leadership and Global Capitalism: A Guide to Good Practice.”

Categories: Opinion