A new year is supposed to be a time of renewal, optimism, and hope. Yet whoever wrote the script for 2021 clearly didn’t get the memo. In early January this year, many countries around the world were enduring the restrictions of toughest lockdowns of the pandemic so far. The promise of a new normal from population-level vaccination programmes was but a flicker on the horizon.
In those dark days just a few weeks ago, I made a decision. I undertook to use the most important tools of my trade at Scala Advance – the rich interviews we undertake as part of our Leadership Brand Assessment – to take the pulse of clients, colleagues, and collaborators. I was keen to capture a moment in time. I wanted to step into the shoes, the minds, the mindset of those I respect and enjoy working with and find out how they were dealing with the biggest and most sustained crisis of their careers. What did they actually feel? How were the really coping? What did the truly plan to do differently on the other side?
What I found both surprised and delighted me – both in what those I spoke to told me, and in what I have been able to do with that content. Everyone I asked immediately said a warm and enthusiastic “Yes!”, no exceptions, no questions asked, and they all gave more than generously of their time. In just a few weeks, I’d conducted 30 rich interviews, using a format and an approach I’ve honed and refined over 25 years. I also quickly put together a nimble, virtual team of transcribers, analysts, data storytellers, and designers. I’m now delighted to be publishing the fruits of this joint enterprise – a report which is both created in and also about the spirit of the age – as Modelling Leadership in a Crisis. In a tour de force of drive and teamwork, we’ve turned around this study inside a month, and I’m indebted to those I spoke to and the agile team that has now delivered the report.
What we found
Covid-19 is undoubtedly the biggest crisis any of us will have to deal with during our working lives. Unusually, it’s a crisis that’s being experienced by everyone in the world, everywhere, all at the same time, albeit in different intensities. And yet despite the ongoing, reverberating shockwaves of the pandemic, in our rich interviews we found industry leaders united by 4Ps: an enormous and impressive sense of Purpose, Pragmatism, Perspective, and Perseverance.
We found no yearning for the past or dwelling in the mire of the present; no hand-wringing or longing for things to be different. Business leaders know that magical thinking like this helps no-one. I believe that these 4Ps place industry and commerce in a good position for the future – tomorrow, next month, next year. They’re addressing the reality of the situation and are responding to turn things around. For themselves, for those they lead, and for their businesses. Perhaps my favourite quote from any of the interviews captures this perfectly: “We picked up the office and walked out. We set up people with screens and laptops and chairs and remote access and we didn’t miss a beat.”
Three trends of positive change
There are almost as many findings as interviews conducted, and the full report bears witness to many examples of the ability of the human spirit to persevere. But three trends stood out for me.
- Dropping the corporate mask
Despite the uncertainty – the fact that no-one knows how things will turn out – an altogether more personable, human way of communicating has emerged in the corporate world. It’s as if leaders have taken off the corporate mask and put it to one side and teams are now dealing with each other in a more genuine and authentic way. There’s less pretence, less hierarchy, and most certainly less formality. As one of the leaders I spoke to said: “I’m hoping that what comes out of this is very much the concept of human first. We are all people, yes we’re in business together, but ultimately we’ve got to trust each other. We work together and we’re all in the same situation.”
- A greater focus on mental health and well-being in the workplace
One of the biggest changes is how we communicate around mental health. Conversations have become more open. They’re not just about workload and stress – key issues that need addressing, particularly as most employees are working considerably longer hours from home than they did in the office. More than that, the focus is now on how employees are coping and if there’s anything that those leading them need to do to better support them. This has made the workplace a more open environment.
Another leader said to me: “One of the things we’ve been talking about is how we achieve a better pace in everyday work, how do we achieve a better balance, how do we try and find time away from the screen and that it is okay to have time away from the screen.” Many leaders thought they were addressing mental health and well-being before, but the stresses of Covid have taught many of us that our approach was tick-box.
- Rethinking our own future
Many leaders have had more time to rethink what is important to them. Time to reflect and be surrounded by family, time which they may not have otherwise had. Organisations need to prepare for this and what it may mean. Loyalty may be enough for some, but there are others who will see this as an opportunity to reduce their hours, to try something new, to create a different lifestyle. A third leader told me: “That’s something I want to do – to really focus people on themselves, their development, and the fact that they do need to own the future, along with my support and the wider business’ support.”
Leaders need to appreciate that their star performers may rebel in future if they’re asked to fly across time zones to attend meetings or lead workshops that everyone has demonstrated can be done just as efficiently remotely – and without exhausting travel that isolates them from their loved ones. That rebellion could take the form of looking for a new role or a more human employer.
My 30 in-depth interviews with leaders – started in the darkest days of January 2021 – have given me a proper sense of renewal. It’s the kind of renewal I usually get from the turning of the year – something that had been absent this year – but it’s more than that. Those leaders I’ve spoken to clearly live by the principle that crises present opportunities for those who look hard enough. For their enterprises and many more like them, the vital signs of the future look surprisingly good.
If they can keep the corporate mask off, if they can properly address mental health and well-being, if they can rethink the future – and many more positive issues, too, snatched from the jaws of adversity – I’m optimistic that the 2020s can be a very fine decade indeed. I hope you find the words of leaders captured in Modelling Leadership in a Crisis inspire you in the same way.
To download a copy of Modelling Leadership in a Crisis, please visit https://bit.ly/3uqbMXU