Leading With Crisis as Your Copilot

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When all the noxious dust has settled on this abominable annum, which companies will be able to count 2020 as a success? One popular line of management wisdom says it will be those with resilient cultures — those that were able to adapt in a flash to new ways of working under lockdown, with the strength of leadership character and level of employee engagement needed to weather the storms of relentless pandemic and social upheaval.

That’s a bit of a stretch for me.

It’s not a reasonable argument that the impacts of any set of organizational characteristics, no matter how robust, will be felt nearly as quickly or deeply as the impacts of an economy turned sideways. No matter how aligned and committed teams may have been, companies across myriad industries have been brutalized. Meanwhile, was it strong character or brilliantly agile culture that drove the use of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Instacart through the roof? Or was it simply a case of golden opportunities difficult to squander? If you were in the right line of business, you had a fighting chance to come out OK in 2020. The wrong line of business? Not so much.

From a financial standpoint, whether we won or lost in 2020 has been defined by what has happened to our organizations more than how we have reacted to it. We didn’t steer 2020. We held on for dear life.

Of course, there is reason to believe that this particular period of shock and awe will slowly abate as we stagger into 2021. With vaccines slowly rolling out, we are beginning to allow ourselves to at least imagine taking those tentative early steps into a reengaged society. With this transition, the dynamics of competition and work will continue to evolve. They will neither return to what we once knew nor be driven by the forces of an unmerciful global health emergency. Instead, they will be defined by a state of uncertainty and unease.

Even as we imagine being done with this crisis, crisis is surely not done with us. Crisis is our new companion. “Crisis management,” as we have known it? Let’s just call it management.

Consider the conditions that will greet us on New Year’s Day 2021. We will be shepherding ourselves into a world still battling a pandemic, though perhaps one in its later stages. There will still be dangerously yawning social and political divides, with spiraling global economic inequality further threatened by fast-advancing technology. There will be eroding trust in every institution you can name. And, oh, we’ll have less than a decade to save the planet from eventual inhabitability.

For even the most optimistic of us (and believe it or not, I count myself among the glass-half-fullers), it is clear that the challenges organizations face will be broader, deeper, less predictable, and — unequivocally — less controllable than ever. The agenda for every leader will now have to include paying attention to the existential threats to society’s well-being.

In this wholly new condition, those organizational phenomena that some have mistakenly assigned to success during the COVID-19 crisis may indeed become difference makers. We will be steering our companies through unknown after unknown. It will sometimes feel like all we have to rely on is trust in our people and their trust in us. So those capabilities and characteristics that I dismissed as less important for overall success in 2020? They will prove crucial in 2021 and for many years to come. Resiliency, character, and engagement will all matter more than ever. Throw in courage, cleverness, caring, a commitment to justice for all people, and an eagerness to engage with the unclear and indefinite and then, folks, we’ll be getting somewhere.

Leading into this particular future is not for the meek. But neither is it for the arrogant, the bull-headed, or the blindly self-righteous. We need the brave, but we also need the modest, the curious, and the accountable. We are stakeholders not only in our own companies but in the health, happiness, and prosperity of the planet and those who inhabit it. The jobs of leaders, in a world marked by disruption and threat, will have never been more difficult nor more important. I hope you will join in embracing that challenge.

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