There is a lot of talk at the moment around whether this is the new normal. My personal view is that the new normal is in the process of transforming and by the time it arrives, there will probably be a newer normal emerging too. After all, Bill Gates is apparently on record as saying that we are going to experience more or several pandemics in our lifetime.
You will have guessed from my newsletters over the last few weeks that I have been chatting to most of my clients and learning how they are experiencing Covid-19 and what the impact has been on them from a variety of perspectives. These discussions have enabled me to notice some trends arising in the world of leadership and leading – in fact, in my view, most of these trends have been around for a while and we’ve known about them but either ignored them or dealt with them less successfully than we thought. The problem is that the pandemic is now not only exposing them but exacerbating the implications of their not having been properly resolved!
Why do I say that? Well, several years ago, I came across what business schools have called the Darwinian Law of Organisational Survival which states that organisational learning must equal or be greater than the speed of environmental change. Makes sense, doesn’t it! It’s a bit like calculating your return on investment – if your investment doesn’t earn you a greater return than the rate of inflation, then you are going backwards. If what I have said above about unresolved trends is anywhere near accurate, then the pandemic is going to put us even further behind.
The first trend that strikes me as being a danger (and I will be dealing with one or two of these each week) relates to the myth of the heroic leader. As Warren Bennis said as long ago as 1997:
“Our mythology refuses to catch up with us. And so we cling to the myth of the Lone Ranger, the romantic idea that great things are usually accomplished by a larger-than-life individual working alone. Despite evidence to the contrary – including the fact that Michelangelo worked with a group of 16 to paint the Sistine Chapel – we still tend to think in terms of the Great Man or the Great Woman, instead of the Great Group.”
Some organisations have tried to move on; nevertheless, most of the companies I see (and from various podcasts, books and articles I have come across over the last few years suggest it’s a global phenomenon) haven’t managed to get this right. One of the greatest challenges CEO’s face is managing the expectation of all the different stakeholders.
There is an interesting debate going on as to whether leadership teams are actually teams. This is a discussion for another day, but I believe the reason behind this is because, notwithstanding matrix structures etc., leadership teams largely follow the hub and spoke model with the leader in the middle and the members of the leadership team being the spokes, each reporting in to the CEO and often primarily taking responsibility for their division rather than primarily what’s in the best interests of the business as a whole. This is a generalization I know, but shouldn’t the leadership team be primarily responsible for the business and then their divisions? As a result of this, the CEO takes on more and more responsibility for ensuring that the business is successful, and when it’s not, or it faces challenges, this burden reaches serious proportions.
If you add to that the CEO’s responsibilities to the board, shareholders, customers, suppliers and banks, to mention the critical stakeholders only, then his or her office begins to look (and feel) like ten Parisian traffic circles in one.
Peter Hawkins notes that the tenures of CEO’s are becoming shorter and shorter – and the reason is not so much that they are being pushed out when not successful enough; rather they more often than not are burnt out!
So, if this was largely the situation before the pandemic, in the ‘good old days’ of VUCA (remember that – volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous), what would be the impact of that flaw in organisational design now in our temporary new ‘normal’? How far behind the curve of environmental change is our organisational learning and change falling? How can one person (or even a few, come to mention it!) handle the challenges of the current environment?
I would guess that a lot of CEO’s have caught on that they need a bit of help and realizing that they will not be able ride the tsunami out on their own. Hopefully, some of them have decided to embark on greater collective leadership. For me, collective leadership is certainly the overdue order of the day; but I have to ask the question: if collective leadership wasn’t developed in VUCA times, just how ready are the other leaders in the organisation to take up the reigns. Talk about being thrown in the deep end! Nevertheless, in the end we survive, don’t we – cometh the time, cometh the person!
So, I fear it’s a matter of “The King is Dead – Long Live the Team!” Or as Patrick Lencioni has often been quoted:
“Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It’s teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.”
So, to sum up, what are the paradigm shifts that emerge for us? I would suggest they are something like this:
- From individual leader to collective leadership;
- From leader to leadership; and
- From “I/me” to “We/us”, in fact, to “all of us.
Next week I will be looking at another pre-pandemic trend that is also now biting us.
Until then, keep safe and well.