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.

Twenty Twenty Vision

Has it really been twenty years since we were celebrating a new Millennium? Depending on your perspective, that milestone might seem like yesterday or an age away — given the pace of change, it can feel like both. Across societies worldwide there’s a cultural tradition of acknowledging significant anniversaries and using these as a time to reflect on the past and set new goals. And so, as we enter the third decade of the century, it’s perhaps an appropriate moment to consider the road we’ve travelled and the forces and challenges that are likely to lie ahead.

From a leadership perspective, looking back on the last twenty years, the landscape is in many respects still recognizable — the basics of balanced analytical judgement, good people skills, team building and empowerment are little different, if probably more nuanced. But the changes wrought by technology, increasing globalization, public sentiment and the sheer improvements to our understanding of how we best work together — have inexorably transformed the way organizations navigate their routes to success.

My chief interest lies in the impact these developments — and many others — will have on the demands of senior leadership in the decade ahead. Of course, cultural trends don’t fit neatly into ten-year cycles, but for the sake of convenience — and with a heavy caveat that ‘futurology’ is out of date the moment it’s voiced- here are my thoughts on some the issues that may most significantly impact the leadership agenda over the next ten years.

Purpose

The idea of organizational purpose has been gaining ground for some time. It’s understood that businesses must make a profit to survive, but beyond this there lies an increasingly powerful sentiment that organizations need to play a clearer and more positive role, not only for their direct stakeholders but also in wider society. The growing B Corp movement , which accredits businesses on social and environmental factors, has to date been seen as somewhat ‘alternative’ — but its core message, which envisions business as a force for good while campaigning for a more balanced assessment of positive impacts than profit alone, is increasingly influencing mainstream thinking. Evidence shows that organizations founded on strong social values have more engaged colleagues, attract talent at less cost and enjoy stronger customer relations and brand reputations. Leadership in the next decade will require greater attention to these issues, not as a requisite of political correctness, but as a means to drive performance.

Sustainability

No organization of size can ignore sustainability in the coming decade. From an environmental perspective, the pressures are literally rapidly warming up — and with them a need for greater vision and bolder solutions. Pressure groups demanding targets that would appear, by conventional standards, to be unachievable and unrealistic, are nonetheless impacting public sentiment and with that shaping the policy and legislative agendas. The challenge for many leaders will be that adopting a ‘road to Damascus’ eco-conversion will be as impractical as continuing to ignore the underlying realities. My expectation is that a combination of technological solutions and ever more stringent legislation (particularly to ensure level playing fields) will help — but, regardless of the detail, it is clear that we will require leaders to step up with urgency and place these issues at the center of our planning.

Transparency

The last two decades have seen an unprecedented increase in the scope of corporate reporting. Financial performance, though remaining pre-eminent, is now only one among many of the measures that organizations must account for: gender diversity, pay ratios, executive incentives, environmental emissions, health & safety… This wider assessment of organizational competence will only increase, as will the transparency of data comparison between organizations.

To some extent, what we have seen is a shift to ‘compliance reporting’, by which organizations have sought to meet the formal requirements but then limited further comment. I sense is that we will see the pendulum swing the other way, with a greater demand for leaders to provide more detailed narratives that are answerable to (and tested by) the ever-increasing transparency of the data. Accountability and transparency go hand in hand, so we should expect leaders to be more answerable to their stakeholders than ever before.

Collectivity

One thing that isn’t going to happen is life becoming simpler. Complexity will necessarily increase as a consequence of the challenges above, and it’s as true as ever that ‘ what got us to here, will not take us to where we need to go’. In this environment, leadership that’s focused on a single individual, however charismatic or talented, will not be sufficient — and even a united senior team is unlikely to deliver the transformational change that some organizations will require. The most successful companies already devolve decision making, but simply segmenting responsibility (by, for example, allocating Values to HR or Efficiencies to Operations) will also not be enough. As complexity increases the role of leadership must shift even further from a focus on decision making and control, to that of engendering a collective ownership of direction and priorities. In short, leadership will increasingly be about demonstrably living the organization’s collective values and goals as much as setting them.

Courage

The average lifespan of a business is shortening — it’s currently somewhere around 10 years — and most of those long-standing companies that continue to thrive do so by continual adaptation if not entire reinvention. We all know that the last decade has hit the retail sector particularly hard but arguably greater and more fundamental challenges lie ahead for others — consider the challenges facing the leaders in say, heavy engineering, hi-tech manufacturing, distribution, combustible engine manufacturing…

For many businesses — be they start-ups or global giants — the next decade is likely to involve some truly critical calls. Leaders will need to listen, to delegate, to set goals — all that we have considered so far — but they must also have courage, since many of the key decisions will require acting on beliefs in the absence of certainty. The word courage has its origins in the old French and Latin words for ‘heart’ or ‘seat of our feelings’ — and in that sense, it is subtly different to bravery or resolve. These qualities will be helpful too, for boldness and determination are how we must put our beliefs into practice, and acting together, they will be as fundamental to success as any analysis or epiphany.

Zest

I was tempted to title this last section ‘fun’, for enjoyment in the task is surely essential in any leader, whatever their era. But in zest I am hinting at something more. For if we bring energy and enthusiasm to the mix — ideally in a manner that’s infectious to others — then what’s daunting becomes exciting; what seems an obstacle becomes an opportunity — and thereby all the more achievable.

Leaders must not fear the challenges of the next ten years — rather, they should see them as a golden chance: unique, inspiring and seminal to our futures. Leadership in this context is a privilege and remembering as much, every time we turn up for our colleagues or ourselves, is a challenge we should all look forward too.

Happy new year — and here’s to a Roaring Twenties!