Many leaders of yesterday crave the return back to normal. The ‘normal’ that they know so well, that gives them an illusory feeling of predictability, safety and comfort. Some of them keep acting as if the pandemic is just a temporary nuisance that will soon pass, and things will go back to the way they were before.
What was the ‘normal’ they are so clinging to?
It was a static, heavy and highly hierarchical chain of command, where a position on the ladder, sometimes earned through questionable ways, meant more than merit or skills. Where even mediocre or incompetent leaders – and perhaps those in their immediate circle – could be in charge of making all decisions, with little or no space for meaningful, democratic employee participation. Where it was possible to see employees as impersonal cogs in the organizational machinery, not as individual people.
In that ‘normal’, it was possible for leaders to maintain the internal communication in their organization highly centralized and hermetic. To give their staff fragmented, incomplete information. To sugar-coat the reality for employees or offer them authoritative views about how things should be. All this with an air of superiority and paternalism, as if employees were a bunch of lazy children, not committed and capable adults.
The ‘normal’ of the past made it possible for mediocre or incompetent leaders to hide their risk aversion and inability to make decisions behind rigid, strictly enforced rules and procedures that they knew so well. Even when those rules and procedures were harmful to employees, putting them at a clear disadvantage vis-a-vis their employers. Even though they made the organizations slow to act and adapt, and constrained efficiency.
Leaders of the past ‘normal’ could be reactionary in their words and actions, driving employees to apply outdated, ineffective solutions to poorly defined problems, with only a short-term outlook that was not anchored in values and purpose. The ill-conceived notion of “business continuity” meant doing the same things, and in the same way, as they had always been done.
In that ‘normal’, it was possible to place “business continuity” ahead of people’s well-being. Organizational effectiveness could be equated with staff doing regular office hours, performing and reporting on always the same tasks, with rigid distribution of roles, inefficient “command and control” micromanagement practices, and employee performance judged by compliance, not by merit and skills.
In the past ‘normal’, the discussions and actions around ethics could be reactionary, triggered by fear, urgency and external pressures, often resembling clumsy window-dressing efforts to protect the ‘corporate image’ rather than honest, all-inclusive attempts to build an ethical organizational culture. It was also possible to treat the funds at the organization’s disposal as a bottomless cash box that could be used at will for excessive travel, lavish venues for events and other careless expenses.
It was possible for leaders of the past ‘normal’ to make empty statements about the importance of working together without validating them with meaningful actions. They could act in ways that reinforced internal and external silos, promoted competition over cooperation, and placed their organizational ego over comprehensive, sustainable results for people and communities.
“Old ways won’t open new doors”
The leadership failures of the past have only been amplified, like in a magnifying glass, during the COVID-19 crisis. Deficiencies that were the well-known yet often unspoken reality have now come to the fore. And true leadership colours have become very clear.
So now, we have a choice to make.
We can remain the leaders of yesterday, clinging to the past that feels so familiar and comfortable. Or we can acknowledge that the ‘normal’ of yesterday was ineffective, inefficient, ill-fit to reality and often toxic, and rethink how we define and apply leadership.
We can be the leaders who are driven by – and drive – strong ethical values. Who take full responsibility for how our words, decisions and actions affect people. Who assume full accountability for how the public resources are used to drive impact.
We can focus on what matters most for any organization: our employees, showing through our words, decisions and actions that they are our most valuable and important asset, that they are respected and trusted.
We can choose to be open about the fact that our organization faces a crisis of an unknown duration and unprecedented proportions. Being realistic, we can project confidence that we will get through this together.
While acknowledging the uncertainty and unpredictability, we can foster behaviors and mindsets that will help our staff look ahead. Consistently focusing our employees on organizational values and the broad purpose, we can invite them to think together what the future might look like for the organization.
We can engage employees in an honest and humble reflection of what our ‘core business’ means in the new, dynamic and unpredictable reality. Knowing that priorities will have to change, we can empower our employees to redefine these priorities. And we can give them space and trust to find the best ways to act on the priorities, supporting out-of-the-box thinking, creativity and innovation.
We can identify skills and talents we have in our teams and, if people are no longer able to function in their pre-pandemic roles, find new tasks where they can use their potential. Together with our employees, we can learn and practice adaptability, flexibility and resilience.
And we can inspire and guide collective efforts that are truly responsive to well-understood needs of the people, value and drive collaboration, and focus on real results.
Operating the uncharted waters of the post-pandemic world will be tough. It will be unpredictable and scary, and it can be painful. We are all vulnerable and afraid. I know I am.
But this is not the time to revert to the past, to cover up leadership mediocrity or incompetence, and to feed individual or organizational egos. The reality demands that we rise up to the challenge of being responsible leaders of tomorrow.
If we don’t, we will go down – and pull our organizations with us.
And no, if our employees were patronized, undervalued, controlled and micromanaged in silos, they will not stand up together to save the ship from sinking.