Leadership in times of crisis. Don’t look up – look inside, outside and sideways.

It seems like we’re into a new phase of Covid-19. The phony war is over, and the real one is starting.

In the phony war, there was lots of support (depending where you are in the world). Here in the UK, the shock forced a Government committed to “small state” philosophies to create the biggest interventions in living memory, and probably ever. Almost overnight, around ten million people became, effectively, state employees and many large businesses became state subsidised. I’m no critic – I don’t think there was much choice, and a young, rookie Chancellor only hours into the job did remarkably well.

For three months, we have been holding our breath as events unfolded.

Now they are. As subsidies are modified, and as we realise they will be withdrawn before the virus is under control, the real war begins.

We are seeing, and can be confident we will continue to see, thousands of jobs disappearing every week as employers “hit the mattresses” in preparation for a recession, and you know it’s real when even that most ethical of employers, The John Lewis Partnership, joins in.

“Lessons will be Learned”

This hugely overused phrase, beloved of every executive in the wake of a disaster, now applies to the rest of us. We are, in the end as Invictus tells us, the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls

It raises some real questions for us, as we take an unwilling lead in absorbing the aftershocks.

  • How aware were we that our jobs were so immediately disposable? Did we know, or were we, like our employers, wilfully blind?
  • Why were they so disposable? Were we really that insulated from the people we serve? Will they not miss us?
  • Did we have our own fall back plans? What have we done during the furlough to prepare for the highly likely event of furlough turning to something rather longer and more terminal?

Dependence, Independence and Interdependence

These are the staples of the better leadership courses. They apply to all of us.

  • It is really easy to become dependent when times are good. We allow ourselves to be persuaded that the future will be an extension of the past, as the self congratulatory corporate PR rolls out. We don’t know quite how, or quite when, or quite why, but we can be 100% certain it won’t.
  • Independence is attractive, but scary. I am listening to a good webinar on “careers in crisis” whilst writing this, and to a director of a recruitment company explaining how fragile independence is. Loneliness, no paid holidays, no pension. IR35. He’s right of course, although the sudden sharp shock of disposability wasn’t mentioned. Independence is scary, but at least you know it and act accordingly to look after yourself.
  • Interdependence. The art of working together, for each other. A leadership ideal rarely achieved where shareholders have the upper hand. Rhetoric, not reality. However, when independents work together, for each other it’s different and enough to scare poor employers.

As we learn the lessons of this crisis, interdependence is a lesson to learn.

When Leadership goes missing, where do you look?

Leadership is not a place in the hierarchy, or a role description. It is a practice. It requires a willingness to care, and put yourself in the service of others. Right now, the difference between leadership and management is being laid very bare.

What do you do when your leaders stop leading? You look inside – to your own intuition. You look outside and sideways, to your network and your peers. To those who lead because it’s what they do, in pursuit of what matters – not because its a concept.

Out there, right now are those who will help you. They can’t rescue you – nobody’s going to do that – that’s your job – but they can support you, give you directions, and introduce you to ideas and people. Because they can, and because your success doesn’t threaten them, and they want you to succeed. You are not alone.

If you want encouragement, watch Margaret Heffernan’s TED Talk. Companies don’t have ideas, or networks, or loyalties. People do. As we get the other side of this crisis, and into the next one, it is these factors that will make the difference – connection, support, laughter, loyalty. Interdependence.

If you want more – watch this video by Ori Brafman. It’s an hour of your time, and it will change how you think about Leaders in today’s world.

Interdependence breeds anti fragility – the capability to use the energy of a shock to grow. Si Alhir can show you what that means in practice.

Whether you’re employed, self employed, or temporarily bewildered, look inside, outside and sideways. Don’t rely on up.

Two Futures

In a while, there will be, for a short while, a new normal. Before we know it another shock will appear, suddenly, just where we’re not looking.

Covid-19 is a great teacher. We need to learn from it.

Right now, we all have a choice of two futures.

The one we’re being offered,

Or the one we can shape, alongside others, who will be there with us as we do it.

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