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Before the Covid-19 pandemic upended the world, businesses were already becoming more accustomed to dealing with uncertainty. The geopolitical landscape was as tumultuous as it had been in many years, rocked by an erratic US administration and Brexit-induced volatility, and digital disruption was condemning a growing number of longstanding incumbents in numerous sectors to the graveyard, having failed to evolve.
Coronavirus, of course, amplified uncertainty by an order of magnitude no living business executive had experienced before, but that doesn’t change the reality that leaders were having to adapt at an unprecedented pace even before Covid-19 exhausted the use of the word ‘unprecedented.’ This means it is foolish for any company to assume it will revert to a state of blissful stability and clarity when the pandemic finally concludes, whenever that may be.
Instead, it will have served as the latest, albeit the most extreme, example of uncertainty in a much wider period in which such an environment became the operational norm. Succeeding during a time when cycles of change are rapidly accelerated and strategic outlooks much shorter, requires a more fluid approach to leadership. While some leaders have risen to the challenge during the pandemic, others have been exposed for lacking the skills and behaviors that distinguish their more successful contemporaries.
What are those skills and behaviors? Three core attributes define the new breed of thriving business leaders in this age of perennial disruption, in which vital decision-making increasingly has to be based on limited reliable data. Given leaders represent their company’s culture and values, these attributes also speak more widely about how organizations can prosper through not just the new normal but the next one too.
Spoilt by the user experience they enjoy on their smartphones and social networks, customers’ expectations have catapulted over the last decade across all manner of products and services. In this landscape, leaders didn’t require a global pandemic to teach them just how important agility now is to businesses, but needless to say, it has accelerated the need.
When leaders faced challenges in previous generations, most of the time, they were able to turn to a well-established playbook for dealing with them, based on prior experience. However, there can be no playbook for the unprecedented, so leaders have been forced to chart their own course. Agility underpins true resilience, and it can’t be taught on an MBA course.
Few leaders are excellent at both strategy and execution, which is fine, but agility does require the ability to switch seamlessly between the two. Crucially, agility is not simply the preserve of great leadership today – it absolutely must be ingrained throughout the organization. Agility is often wrongfully associated exclusively with digitization, yet it is not a technology. It’s a mentality. Our responsibility as leaders is to find the right balance between embracing the digital age and preserving the traditional values underpinning the fabric of our business and personal relationships for centuries.
Related: Leaders Facing the Unknown: Part 1
It’s not only a pre-crisis desire for agility that has gained pace during the pandemic but also purpose-driven leadership and ESG issues. During times of difficulty or uncertainty, customers reward brands that behave fairly, ethically and increasingly wish to purchase from brands that align with their own personal values. Therefore, leading with a social conscience will make businesses and their people more resilient to disruption.
Driving strong financial results for a business during periods of uncertainty is difficult enough, but doing so while also satisfying a much wider breadth of stakeholders, including employees, minority communities and even the environment, is truly a leadership art form.
While remaining true to the socially-driven company mission and values they have defined, those that do so will be on the strongest footing for success in the years ahead, as customers gravitate to trustful and transparent brands, which inspires me to create The Bruno Effect. The best leaders view transparency not as a barrier but as a real opportunity to connect with staff and customers on a deeper level.
The best leadership amidst uncertainty and disruption is underpinned by honesty, humility and an unwavering commitment to really living the company’s values. In this environment, people respond positively to a personal, authentic leadership style, which requires great communication, a strong moral compass, mental agility, consistency – and even more transparency.
More than ever, businesses need calm and compassionate leadership and decisiveness, even when insights to inform decisions are lacking. One of the biggest challenges facing leaders in the post-crisis business world will be inspiring workforces to buy-in to the company’s mission. It’ll require the courage to boldly reset or pivot strategy, culture and processes when confronted with evidence of change or underperformance.
Authentic leaders, who engage well with their growing array of stakeholders, should aim at evolution, not revolution, in their approach to leadership. The pandemic aligned everyone’s attention on a single objective, but the number of so-called strategic imperatives at a company can multiply outside such times of crisis, resulting in a lack of focus. It falls to leaders to ensure their organization is united behind a clear vision and common set of goals.