By Steve Gulati, Director of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Programme
School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham
“There are decades when nothing happens. And there are weeks when decades happen” – Vladimir Lenin
If ever the importance and significance of leadership needed underlining, COVID-19 provides definitive evidence. Economic and political measures that were so recently unthinkable are now mainstream and what was once unimaginable is frighteningly real. In this maelstrom, leaders are needed, wanted – exposed – as never before. Leaders are tested in the full glare of their followers, in real-time, at the most fundamental level.
On one level, the current global crisis strips issues down to the basics: what are leaders for? What even is leadership? Orthodoxies that have emerged over the years are suddenly confronted with the clearest of realities. Democratic, inclusive, distributed models of leadership, so vaunted in public services, can now seem cumbersome, slow to react, contradictory; ideas of ‘heroic’ individuals, demonstrating swift, decisive action suddenly much more appealing.
Among all of this though, it is important not to lose sight of nuance, of diversity and difference – after all, as ever, one person’s ‘strong leadership’ can still be another person’s ‘bullying’. So, in this time of unprecedented challenge, dramatic change, a ‘once in a century’ pandemic, what now for leaders?
As much as some things change, some stay the same. It is broadly accepted that creating an environment where people can flourish whilst challenging others and being challenged is a key skill for leaders – indeed, holding ‘self’ and ‘others’ to account forms a key part of many leadership and management development programmes. Nothing in the current global crisis contradicts these points.
The ability for leaders to flex their style, for example, more towards a directive or pacesetting approach, is also key and depends in turn on management and leadership education and development. And the relationship with followers is more important than ever – the emotional intelligence to strike the appropriate tone, find the right words, balance reassurance with challenge, and (critically), not to pass on one’s own stress and anxiety whilst remaining approachable and authentic.
As we now know more than ever, not only are contemporary workplaces increasingly part of complex adaptive systems, so are societies, nations. And we now also know, these are rarely bounded in a way that makes them immune from the wider environment – borders are not boundaries.
External pressures can confound or compromise even the best intentions, unpredictable changes can change the dynamics within groups and between individuals in ways that can expose hitherto unknown tensions. Personalities, processes and systems can become distorted by these pressures. The role of leaders then changes rapidly, moving between support to flexing previously stable boundaries, negotiating new norms and behaviours, whilst all the time needing to also attend to self-care.
Leaders can influence events, but cannot control them. Personal values can guide behaviour, but these can be distorted by events. An invisible virus has created what political enmities and treaties could not – uniting a planet, whilst also highlighting longstanding rifts. In these most extraordinary times, I found myself reflecting on one of Vladimir Lenin’s most timeless observations: “there are decades when nothing happens. And there are weeks when decades happen”.