C19 – better than leadership?

C19 is horrific. Perhaps the most frightening thing I have ever lived through. But then I am too young for WW2 and was a new born at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis when we stood at the brink of a nuclear holocaust. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Tsunamis, famines. C19 is right up there. But like most crises, it gets things done that our leaders couldn’t.

C19 has enabled thing to happen in a few months that leadership have been trying to make happen for years. We are reducing our use of cars and planes. We are increasing the use of technology. And innovation and creativity is springing up everywhere. Some previously moribund organisations are actually making stuff happen. That understaffed NHS? 750 00 volunteers and 20 000 returning clinicians. I wonder why they ever left? Leadership?

C19 is doing what our leaders couldn’t. And I am seeing it work in two very different ways.

The first is that of paralysis. Like rabbits caught in headlights. Sat waiting for the ‘top’ the ‘centre’, or ‘HQ’ to figure things out and give clear guidance and instructions.  If in doubt – do nothing and await further instructions.

Or, keep doing what we have always done – but do it with greater commitment, greater risk, and greater efforts to mitigate the risk too. Find the inner hero. Or have it thrust upon us. Strike the medals.

This perhaps is a reflection of a particular culture where organisations and individuals have formed a dependency on ‘authority’, that will eventually ‘know the way and show the way’.  And a reliance on habits and routines that have been proven to work in the past and will surely, hopefully, prevail again.

The second is that of open innovation and creativity.  Self organising and mutually supporting groups and networks have sprung up within days and all sort of innovations are being tested.  Restaurants are becoming take-aways. Makers clubs are running online.  Choirs and bands are performing from the sofas using collaboration platforms and new music is being released at an amazing rate.  GPs are doing nearly all of their consultations online with kit that had been gathering dust in their surgeries for years.  New hospitals spring up within weeks. This world is moving quickly, collaboratively and positively.

What influences which of these two reactions we get to the crisis?  Well, certainly personality, history and culture play a huge part.  

Some people are more prone to ‘flight’ or ‘fight’. When they face a threat – they act.  They experiment. They test their assumptions by acting. While others are more prone to freeze.  Let others take the risks. As the way forward becomes clear, guidelines will appear and we can then move with more safety. 

Both can work.  But what is best now, in this context?

I also think culture and structure play a part.  

Families with strong leaders look to them for assurance and guidance.  Organisations with strong hierarchies look to the senior management and the board for guidance and instructions.  Subjects look to Ministers and state sanctioned experts for assurances, advice and the wielding of new powers to keep us safe.

While families with more distributed leadership start talking to each other about what next.  Organisations with more empowered structures start to blossom with experiments as individuals and groups start to test the new waters in terms of what works, and share what they know. Civilians start to care for themselves, their neighbours and what they hold most dear.

But which response is best?  How should we develop our systems to better respond in the future? 

Well, I don’t think it is either/or.  It is both/and.

The best responses have both a strong top down influence and this blossoming of innovation.  They work together – exchanging information. Listening, challenging, supporting, testing. Top down and bottom up – learning from each other in rapid cycles of experimentation and learning.

Dependency is replaced by a healthier more human relationship.  A genuine association around a shared purpose where hierarchy and rank are less important than experience, wisdom, intuition, and when they are available, facts.

Take a good look at the systems you are part of professionally and personally.  What reactions are you seeing to the crisis? In yourself? In those around you? 

What does it teach you about the need for things to be different in the future?

What does it mean for you and your development?

Leadership and its Development…part of the problem?

Cast your mind back to a time before this tiny virus had us in its grip.

How were we doing?

If there was an end of term report card what might it say?

Well, of course, we have worked hard. We have been industrious. Much has been achieved.

  • The world has been shrunk. Men on the moon. Women in to space
  • Massive improvements for many in medicine, health and wealth
  • A greater choice of consumer goods than ever and more sophisticated financial products and services to help us own them

But it is not all puppy dog tails and sweet, sweet roses.

  • Globally we have millions of people without enough food and shelter fleeing wars and discrimination – running from their fellow humans
  • Habitat being destroyed and species extinction running at alarming rates
  • Climate collapsing, with real fears that sea level rises will make the floods caused by increasingly warm winds carrying higher than level moisture levels look like April showers
  • Plastics, visible and invisible inside our bodies and in every place on earth
  • Widespread deplorable practices of animal husbandry required to provide us with affordable volumes of flesh, milk and eggs
  • An accumulation of capital, wealth, by a few massive corporates, celebrities and billionaires. While millions live and die in poverty with little or no chance of escape
  • Societies patterned by unfair discrimination
  • Air that is not safe to breathe. Water that is not safe to drink. And a civilisation that can be bought to its knees by such a simple thing
  • Our children suffering levels of anxiety and poor mental health that we have not been able to respond to with timely care and compassion
  • Hundreds of millionaires, billionaires, politicians and celebrities taking private jets to Davos to wring their hands over the state of the world

For some the message is loud and clear. Leadership is failing us. As leadership developers we have to accept, explore and develop our role in this.

Perhaps.

There is another story…

I’m sure some will not buy this narrative. It certainly isn’t the ‘whole truth’. Some may say that our scientific and technological prowess, capitalism and our ingenuity has raised the standard of living world wide. The greater the challenge thrown at humankind the greater our creative response. We will prevail. Humankind really will overcome all of its troubles.

Personally, I am not buying it. History suggests we shouldn’t buy it.

Every civilisation so far has had a rise, and a fall, often through over-confidence and hubris. Humility and uncertainty have been crushed by power, arrogance and self-belief. Until the whole pack of cards comes down.

For those that say now is not a time for reflection but a time to roll up our sleeves and help, I say thank you. Godspeed.

But perhaps some of us can help best by exploring whether leadership and leadership development is failing us and the planet? And if it is, then as leadership developers, educators, citizens, what is our role in this?

And how might we learn and develop ourselves and our practice?

Do you hear this call? Are you curious?

A Fresh Dialogue?

Over the coming weeks and months we will hold a series of online meetings with an aim to develop a generative dialogue to explore this issues surrounding Leadership and Leadership Development with a view to learning together and looking for possibilities of a new way forward. To generate a community of people who carefully and gently construct and develop a ‘pool of shared meaning’ from which new possibilities might form.

Pool of shared meaning
The Pool of Shared Meaning

Are you interested? Curious? Would you like to join us?

John Varney of the Centre for Creativity in Management and I will be hosting some online meetings in the coming weeks, provisionally titled ‘Learning to do together what we can’t do alone’ and we would invite you to join us.

All sessions are free to join. Come to one or more. We would love for you to join us for the whole journey wherever that may take us – but dipping in and out is fine.

There is also an option to pay to cover costs and make donations that will support us to develop the work further.

Questions and comments welcome! Please do invite others who you think might heed the call to join us. Share this post. But also issue personal invitations.

We need to learn to do together…what we can’t do alone.

Reflections from the Safe Space #1

Last night I had my first ‘safe space’ conversation with a small group of managers and leaders to reflect on their responses to the current crisis, to share lessons learned and to think about the possibility of change. In a series of short posts I’d like to share a few of the insights we explored in the hope that you might find them helpful.

If you would like to join us in a future ‘safe space’ you can book your place here.

Insight 1: Learn from your heroes

Heroes are out in force.

It seems nearly everyone is making heroic efforts and enormous sacrifices, to ‘support patients’, ‘support the frontline’ and ‘keep the business going’. But heroism is a difficult thing to sustain. We can’t keep on sacrificing, without a burden of debt building up to what has been sacrificed.

Inside every hero is a human being, fragile, beautiful, sensitive, exhausted.

So when you notice individuals and teams being ‘heroes’, before you jump on twitter to offer them your thanks, take a good look at what they are actually doing, the behaviours that earn the label ‘heroic’ and ask:

  • Why do they have to do these super-human things?
  • What are the demands on them?
    • Working long hours?
    • Exposing themselves to risks because of a lack of PPE?
    • Quickly re-wiring the operation in the fly?
    • Deploying and learning new tech for working remotely
    • Making enormous efforts to get to work
    • Sacrificing time with their own loved ones to keep things going

Once you are clear on what the demands are that create these heroes, do everything you can mitigate them. Just like the rest of us, heroes tend to break sooner or later. And this is a marathon – not a sprint.

Reflect on what it is about your planning that creates the space that can only be filled by heroism. It will almost certainly point to a weakness and some important learning. Unless of course you always planned on sustained heroism and sacrifice to see you through. In which case you might want to check your ethics.

Also reflect on whether you have taken lean and efficiency too far. We used to run our hospitals at something like 85% occupancy, and valued the notion of ‘redundant staff’ (staff who were on shift but not directly on the front line – who could be drawn upon if there was a surge in demand or some other shock to the system. These days occupancy is up at 98% and often higher. The conversation is about enough staffing to be safe with business as usual rather than enough staff to cope with a surge. Organisations that run on skeleton staffing struggle to run marathons.

So recognise your heroes. Study them. Learn from them.

And improve your planning and resourcing so that we can move towards ‘no more heroes’ – just human beings sustaining the kind of compassionate and creative work that humans do best – especially when the next crisis hits.


If you would like to join one of these safe spaces for reflection and learning please do get in touch. I run them regularly online using virtual conferencing and they offer you the chance to step back, draw breathe and learn.

What does it cost?

I am committed to a Pay If You Can – Free is Fine model hoping that we can find a way to support those that can’t pay as well as those that can. So don’t let money stop you getting the reflective space you need. Just sign up now and I will be in touch.

We have a couple of slots set aside each week for the foreseaable future.

You can book your place here.

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