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Last week we chatted about a trend which has existed for a long time and that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, namely the myth of the heroic leader. We concluded that it’s impossible for one person to take on as much responsibility as most are taking these days. As Peter Hawkins says:

“No single leader can any longer meet the demands placed on them and there is a growing recognition of the need for highly effective leadership teams.”

However, at this point another fairly long-standing trend (again exacerbated by the pandemic) emerges,   namely that members of the leadership teams are expected to both run the business and transform it.

Over the years, a frequent request I receive is to help senior leaders to be less operational and more strategic. My current experience of leadership teams during the pandemic is that they are even more operational – and who can blame them. Firstly, their lens of the future is really muddied for who knows what the future will bring and when; and, secondly, everyone is in survival mode – they are almost entirely focused on how to keep the business going.

However, that brings the Darwinian Law of Organisational Survival into play again. Last week we defined this as the need for organisational learning to equal or be greater than the speed of environmental change. With this in mind, the question appears to be: will businesses survive if the focus is almost entirely on surviving!! – that is, will they survive if the leaders are entirely operationally focused. Put another way, will they beat environmental change if they don’t also focus on their other role of transforming the business.

I think the difficulty lies in our propensity to think in binary terms – we tend to believe we can only think about transforming the business OR running it. The trouble with this thinking is that the more complex life becomes the more we are called upon to manage paradoxes; what Jim Collins in his book Built to Last, as long ago as 1994, termed “…the tyranny of ‘or’ and the magic of ‘AND’”.

In fact, many businesses, consciously or (probably) unconsciously have done this during the pandemic for not many businesses are now being run in the same way as they were in 2019. In many ways the pandemic called upon them to automatically transform the business while they ran it. And then we seemed to go back to focusing on just running the business…

It took a pandemic to get us to employ “and” thinking – and we didn’t even realise it at the time! And it is going to take more of this magic to keep ahead or abreast of the current rate of environmental change.

I thought I would leave you with another thought-provoking quote from Peter Hawkins:

“Transformational leadership is the process of collectively engaging the commitment and participation of all major stakeholder groups to radical change in the context of shared endeavour, value and vision.”

Next week I will be looking at another pre-pandemic trend that is also now biting us.

Until then, keep safe and well.

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