Gaining Clarity From Adversity

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For all that has been said and written about uncertainty since COVID-19 emerged into public view, the global pandemic has had a clarifying effect. It has highlighted weaknesses in our planning, priorities, and systems, and it has revealed individuals’ and institutions’ true values.

We now see how many of us have been working without a sufficient net. For business, the pursuit of efficiency may have cost a great deal more than we expected in terms of operational resilience. A narrow view of risk management left too many unprepared and undercapitalized despite decades of well-founded warnings that a pandemic event was inevitable. And many nations have allowed social safety nets to fray, leaving unprotected those at the margins, who are now suffering disproportionately from both disease and financial insecurity.

The crisis has held up a mirror to how we make decisions — that is, often with a great deal of unrecognized bias, as Thomas H. Davenport explains in his column in this issue — and has demonstrated the difficulty of making good data-driven decisions in the absence of good data. And not incidentally, it may have improved the data literacy of millions of news consumers who are now more familiar with data modeling, curves that (are supposed to) flatten, and so on.

The pandemic has also shined a bright light on many leaders’ best selves. We’ve been encouraged by those employers that continue to pay their hourly onsite workers who can’t go to jobs at shuttered facilities; heartened by manufacturers that have retooled to produce desperately needed medical and hygiene supplies; and inspired by those companies that are committing resources and talent to collaborative efforts to develop treatments and tools to combat the coronavirus’s spread. These actions may pay dividends going forward, in the form of greater workforce loyalty, increased flexibility to pivot to new opportunities, and employees emboldened to innovate and contribute to the greater good.

What has also come into sharper focus is the difference between that which we can control and that which we cannot. Those who can make that distinction and, as Gianpiero Petriglieri advises in this issue, embrace their duty to care for their people, will emerge from this crisis not only as better leaders but as wiser human beings.

Finally, we must note that the summer issue, including the text above, went to press before the tragedy of George Floyd’s death, which has focused the world’s attention on the persistence of racial injustice and systemic racism in the United States. All of us must affirm that Black Lives Matter. We must all act to end racist structures and systems. At MIT SMR, we are also actively working to build on our long-held commitment to publishing work that promotes diversity, inclusion, and a just and equitable society. Embracing those values will also be the hallmark of the best and wisest leaders.



Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
See All Articles in This Series

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