THE URGENT NEED FOR SOPHISTICATED LEADERSHIP
strategy+business|Winter 2020
The pandemic has highlighted a series of paradoxes inherent to the work of leaders. What comes next will depend on how well leaders face up to them.
BLAIR SHEPPARD and SUSANNAH ANFIELD

IN THE 2019 PwC Global Crisis Survey, 69 percent of respondents said they expected a global crisis in the next five years, most likely due to a financial meltdown or technology failure. Little did they know how soon the crisis would come. Just nine months after the survey was released, an entirely different and unexpected medical and public health crisis — COVID-19 — has fundamentally altered the world. If driving change in the uncertain and turbulent environment that existed at the beginning of 2020 was a complex challenge, the degree of difficulty has now been ramped up significantly.

As we recently noted in these pages, five global forces — asymmetry of wealth, disruption, age disparities, polarization, and loss of trust — which together we’ve termed ADAPT, were already changing the way millions of people live and work (see “Adapting to a new world,” s+b, May 13, 2020). The pandemic has sharply accelerated these forces. As a result, organizations have even less time than they thought to reconfigure themselves so that they can maintain their viability in a vastly changed world. In our new book, we predict that humanity has “10 years to midnight.” But with events moving so quickly, it seems there may be even less time until the fateful hour. The good news is that by recognizing the challenges confronting society, internalizing the lessons of the pandemic, and deploying the tools and technologies at hand, we can chart a new, more adaptive course. But doing so is going to place a fresh set of demands and intense pressures on leaders.

The six paradoxes of leadership

There is an urgent need for leaders who can quickly understand, accept, and embrace six apparent contradictions in their work. Those contradictions are represented in the paradoxical identities below.

Around the world, leaders, already stretched in all directions, have never faced so many dilemmas to navigate and contradictions to reconcile. Beyond dealing with the familiar aspects of their business, they now have to cope with the most fundamental of issues: health, well-being, safety, and financial viability. And the trade-offs are excruciating. Answers appear to conflict with each other, leading to decisions that have every likelihood of being wrong. Many companies may feel like they must return to business as normal in order for their industries, communities, and economies to survive, but the very act of returning to familiar ways of working could inhibit the ability of all these entities to succeed in the future. The speed of decision-making has picked up. Decisive, or seemingly prudent, moves made a month ago — even a week ago — can quickly become redundant, or worse, appear reckless. In a world of endless todays, medium- and long-term planning feels futile, and the scope of short-term planning is reduced to a matter of hours. Yet it is exactly in such times that people look to leaders to provide stability, hope, and a path forward. Crises like the one we’re experiencing are a crucible from which the true capabilities of leaders emerge and reputations are forged.

As we first noted in 2018, in our analysis of the six paradoxes of leadership (see Resources, page 67), successful leaders must embody and negotiate a set of apparent contradictions in order to thrive in a rapidly changing world. They must have the confidence to project a clear strategy, and the humility to correct course and recognize the need for change. They must also be as adroit at surveying the landscape from 30,000 feet as they are at making sure operations function well on the ground. They must remain rooted in the traditions that made their organizations successful while continuously embracing innovation. They should consider what they need their workforce to achieve, and then effectively use enabling technology to help do it. They have to think globally while acting locally. And they must demonstrate the ability to negotiate differing viewpoints toward a consensus while maintaining their integrity. As the world seeks to systematically repair the collective trauma and damage being suffered due to COVID-19 — and to reconfigure and prepare itself to be resilient in future crises — there is an urgent need for leaders to understand, accept, and embrace these paradoxes.

Repair: The need to act quickly and intelligently

The first step in recovery is to repair what has been broken. In order to react quickly and intelligently, leaders must have the confidence to make decisions and act in an uncertain world, and the humility to consult widely, recognize when they are wrong, and adjust course. They must be Humble Heroes, the first type of paradoxical leadership we’ll discuss.

As COVID-19 spread and community transmission took hold across the world, decisive action was required of global leaders. In China and New Zealand, Germany and South Africa, and in all corners of the world beyond, enormous pressure was placed on national leaders to act in the best interests of their country and every one of their citizens. Each move by government was made under a harsh spotlight, at a time when little was known about how to contain or combat the virus. Leaders had to have courage and self-belief to act decisively despite the burden of knowing that there would be a devastating cost if a wrong decision was made. In the pandemic’s early days, decisions needed to be made with a huge amount of empathy and humility, and with a willingness to own the outcome despite the lack of a clear road forward. Through careful consultation with doctors, economists, epidemiologists, technologists, and public health experts, the potential outcomes of any of the options available would become clearer. In the face of such uncertainty, it is easy for leaders to grow overwhelmed, freeze, and struggle to make clear decisions and communicate them effectively. It is also difficult to make adjustments when conditions change.

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