Thinking The Unthinkable

Across Europe and North America, political leaders are beginning to think the unthinkable. Two years ago, the suggestion that we would need medical passes to travel, attend events, or enter a restaurant, would have been shuddered at. Today these measures are commonplace, and the scope of sanctions for those who won’t play ball is getting ever wider. What’s more, the prospect of mandatory vaccination— a line that none of us could have imagined would be crossed—is now considered by many to be both necessary and urgent.

My interest here is not so much in arguing for a particular path, as in exploring how we best find a way through. Whatever our views on the rights and wrongs of the options, we cannot simply shirk the debate—for like the virus, it is already out there. The implications for the role of leaders—and the values they espouse—are therefore profound. 

But first, let me return briefly to the pandemic. 

There is a long and deeply held tradition in liberal democracies that compulsory medical treatment is a line we do not cross. Citizens it is claimed, have the right to make their own decisions about their bodies, even if they make objectively poor ones. The role of the State is to provide information and even to persuade, but (with a few extreme exceptions) not to compel, either directly or indirectly through the imposition of coercive sanctions.  

And in normal circumstances, most of us would agree.

But in times of crisis, the contrary view would home in on that word ‘citizen’. Our societies are collective endeavors and cannot be meaningfully reduced to supposedly independent individuals. Free riders who take of society’s benefits without appropriate contribution are universally disparaged. Furthermore, in the democratic West, there’s an equally long and deeply held tradition that the exercise of our liberty should always be limited to the extent it impinges on the freedom of others. 

And so, we have a values stand-off. On the one hand, there is the sense that there ought to be limitations to the State. On the other, growing anger that the actions of a minority are impacting our collective wellbeing. It’s a classic political and moral dilemma: the idea of medical compulsion is uncomfortable, but so too are the restrictions that everyone must endure because of a resistant minority.

What does all this mean for leadership?

I believe it was right for our governments to first pursue a strategy based on information and persuasion. Good leadership does not seek out conflict for its own sake and if momentum can be achieved without confrontation then so much the better. In this regard, trust in both the messages and the messengers is essential, and sadly, politics being what it is, this has been undermined all too often. 

It seems to me that the values which are typical of most progressive companies would have been excellent creeds for our politicians to have lived by: transparency, togetherness, speed and service to others… these, and many similar standards, will be familiar to anyone with experience of modern organizations.

But what if persuasion is not enough?

Over the last few weeks, we have seen countries in Europe and jurisdictions here in the US take increasingly strident lines. Austria will compel vaccinations from early next year while Germany is openly discussing similar measures; in France, the pass sanitaire is becoming essential for all but the most basic of needs. Even in the UK, one of the most reluctant countries in this regard, there is no mention of the need for a national debate. 

And surely here is where leadership has the most crucial role to play. 

For it is essential, in these circumstances, that leaders proactively facilitate an inclusive discussion, ensuring all sides have the opportunity to speak their truth. This process should not be used to delay decisions or abnegate responsibility for their taking, nor should it be the genesis of a fudge that pleases no one. Rather, it’s about using leadership as means to respectful understanding, which more than anything requires careful listening and consideration—before then acting decisively.  

And in that regard, the positive consequences of the action that’s chosen should also be made clear. In leading through divisive issues, we have a responsibility to set out a ‘roadmap of rewards’, showing the milestones ahead and the benefits that will be shared on reaching them. There will always be a resistant few, but our best hope of reaching out to those who are not entirely inflexible is by being transparent about the critical junctions and decision points we face. If progress is not as we had hoped, leaders might reasonably commit to revisit and reconsider in light of those circumstances. 

But a word of warning here. That willingness to reconsider should not be at the expense of a steadfast determination to follow a chosen path. Ultimately, no decision of this sort can be scientifically proven. As leaders, we must at times rely on ‘value judgements’ and the clue to the best of these is in the name. Decisions arrived at with sound reasoning and rooted in commonly held standards and are not guaranteed to succeed, but having made them, we should hold firm until evidence suggests otherwise. 

It’s often said that we are all leaders, and in the context of complex organizations this is undoubtedly true in the sense that we must each take responsibility for our actions. This must not, however, be misinterpreted as permission to act the maverick or undermine policies that have been fairly talked through. Leadership at an individual level is about actively contributing to a collective success even if the strategy is one that you might prefer to be different. If that policy is too far removed from your own values, then it’s time to move on. 

If that is difficult to contemplate, it is but a precursor to some issues we may soon have to face. I sense the next few months are likely to see us in political and moral territories that were unimaginable not so long ago. At times like these, leaders are wise to remember Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, which reminds us to …trust yourself when all men doubt you/ But make allowance for their doubting too…   Whatever paths we chose, I sense, like the crossing of the Rubicon, that there will be no going back. Perhaps more than anything these moments require us to show bravery, by which I mean courage of the sort that seldom wins medals but often wins wars— the sort that listens, considers, and ultimately act in accordance with our values.

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