Can't solve 21st-century problems with 20th-century ways of thinking: PwC Network's Blair Sheppard
People Matters|November 2020
In an exclusive conversation with People Matters, Blair Sheppard, Global Leader, Strategy and Leadership for the PwC Network shares some insights on “The Six Paradoxes of Leadership”, the four global crises we face today, and how the tragedy and suffering of the COVID-19 pandemic has also presented us with an urgent opportunity to reset our approach
Yasmin Taj
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought problems to the fore that we had not even imagined. A huge repair job is needed and it is indeed time to rethink - strategy, structure, culture, and leadership. It is an opportunity for us to reset our approach and pave the way for a better future.

Blair Sheppard is the Global Leader, Strategy, and Leadership for the PwC Network, a network of professional services firms committed to building trust in society and solving important problems. He proposes “The Six Paradoxes of Leadership” that work as a system, forcing leaders to balance competing characteristics, abilities, and beliefs. In this exclusive interaction, Sheppard talks about these six paradoxes of leadership, the four global crises we face today and how they are interconnected with each other and the coronavirus crisis, the need to reset our approach, and more.

Sheppard is also the author of TEN YEARS TO MIDNIGHT: Four Urgent Global Crises and Their Strategic Solutions (August 4, 2020; Berrett-Koehler Publishers) and Dean Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, where he taught for thirty-three years. He was the principal force behind opening Duke's campus in China and the founder and CEO of Duke Corporate Education.

Here are the excerpts from the interview:

Why is our current moment, like the Marshall Plan 70 years ago, a milestone to reset, rethink, and rebuild the direction of society for a better future?

After World War II, the economies of many countries were devastated, and a large number needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. The Marshall Plan provided the funding to do that and eventually evolved into economies and societies, at least outside the socialist regime countries, that we can think of as having distinctive characteristics in terms of four elements - strategy, structure, culture, and leadership. The strategy evolved into global interconnectivity with singular measures of success at the national (GDP) and corporate (shareholder value) levels. The structure was primarily through institutions built to sustain multilateralism, free markets, and technological interconnectivity. The culture was largely market-based and technology-focused, and leadership was provided by what we’d call economically sophisticated globalists. This system worked great for about 70 years until it didn’t.

In the new millennium, we found ourselves trying to solve 21st century problems with 20th century ways of thinking. And the problems we were facing were so big were so severe that huge changes were needed. In that sense, the tragedy and suffering of the COVID-19 pandemic have also presented us with an urgent opportunity to reset our approach. Of course, we have a huge repair job to do when it comes to the balance sheets of governments and businesses, just to stop the bleeding, but then we have the chance to rethink all of the elements I mentioned before - strategy, structure, culture, and leadership and then reconfigure them so that they are ready to take on the really big challenges that we face, like climate change and a world transformed by technology and income inequality. Strategy will have to focus more on local first and inclusive success, structurally, institutions will have to address those big challenges with new logic and more agility, culturally we will need to become more human-centered, more balanced, and more replenishing. And the leaders that will be needed will have to be able to hold and manage paradoxes that are inherent in the new world – like how to be a tech-savvy humanist or a globally-minded localist. We’d better get it right because the four crises won’t wait.

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