Is business ready for a new model of leadership?
As a culture, we have come to idolise bold and decisive leadership.
Think about how different our world would look without the relentless, sometimes brash drive of the Steve Jobs and Elon Musks of the world– who have all realized their vision, even if sometimes it’s at the expense of their team.
Loud, proud and arrogant might work in Silicon Valley to get the funding you need, but right now, globally, we are in desperate need of a different kind of bold leadership. A microscopic virus cell that is 0.16% as wide as a hair on your head is turning the entire world upside down. And most importantly, COVID-19 has illuminated the need for leaders to show up differently.
What does that look like? For starters, it requires leaders to do the boldest thing of all – recognize that the kind of leadership we all need right now is not what we’ve idolized for the past decade. What got you here is not what’s going to get you thru unscathed. This moment requires a different perspective, different priorities, and different actions.
What we need now are leaders that listen first, then inspire and rally communities to act; ones who prioritize empathy and understanding in the moment, rather than ruthlessly focusing on the future. Coronavirus isn’t just a storm to weather, it’s a moment that defines us all, a time to empower and respect the majority, not shine a light on the make-it-happen-at-all-costs uber-performers.
Instead of looking straight to the P&L and laying off staff as soon as there’s a whisper of a lockdown, a bold leader will prioritize employees’ wellbeing, look at how they can cut unnecessary costs and pivot their business to generate new revenue, assess what funding solutions are available, and then act – focusing only on the actions that are in service of your teams, clients and consumers.
Many of the visionary tech leaders are making generous donations to COVID-19 relief: Jack Dorsey’s given $1bn, while Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Michael Dell have all offered up $100m, and Mark Zuckerberg $25m so far. Money from wealthy individuals is needed but it’s not leadership. You can’t buy your way out of true leadership. The age-old adage rings true – “You can buy a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” We need the teachers – those who are acting genuinely in service of a globe coming together as one community.
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The inspiring news is that several businesses have taken the stance of teacher-leaders. James Dyson changed his supply chain to design, manufacture and ship ventilators in just ten days. Burberry’s CEO Marco Gobette, despite a dramatic sales slump, is supporting the fight against the virus by repurposing clothing factories to make surgical gowns and face masks (as well as donating generously). LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault was one of the first to step up, turning his French turn perfume labs into producers of hand sanitiser.
These are the leaders who have helped the effort, driven relevance for their businesses, and empowered their workforces.
Being bold right now means acting with incredible empathy for and with people; looking at the present as much as to the future, checking and adapting to daily changes. We still need a vision, we just have to have empathy and generosity baked into it. We can’t hope to carry on business as usual, so we have to look at how to drive new kinds of revenue and how to motivate our people to come with us.
That’s not to say it’s easy. The hardest part for me has been balancing leading the business and being there for people, finding the space for everybody to share what they need in real-time.
It requires a new level of listening – even if that’s letting someone vent for ten minutes so that they can get on with their day. I’ve started doing “walking meetings,” where we both leave our home-made offices and get outside for a walk in our respective neighbourhoods; not only is every one of those meetings more productive and enjoyable, we actually connect with each other and our surroundings. This is essential since we can’t physically be together. But we are all in this together, whether we are leaders or not.
The daily reminders that we are all struggling with our own stresses and individual circumstances, everything from loneliness to overcrowding, from financial worries to family crises – as well as the deadly virus itself – we have permanently opened up new channels of empathy, and once the pandemic ends, a new kind of leader will emerge.
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