In the final Episode of 2020 I select the top 5 Leadership lessons we can extract from the most trying of years.
- Leadership is critical & not just necessary during Chaos
- Life is random, discriminating, and unfair: meet it where it is
- The “What’s Possible” mindset
- The Old World wasn’t perfect anyway
- People double down on their real self during Chaos
Full Transcription below:
How do you make God laugh? You tell him your plans. This is a lesson that we’ve all learned during the year of 2020, which is one we never forget. When I started the podcast at the beginning of this pandemic, in an effort to try to offer some words of wisdom to people who were struggling, I didn’t imagine, or couldn’t have imagined, the success and popularity that would come from it in the intervening 30 episodes and nearly five hours of content.
At the very beginning of the pandemic, in what my children describe as “dad’s war room”, in the corner there’s a post-it which I wrote in March. And on it were a few things that I wanted to be reminded of, that I needed to keep front of mind in spite of the chaos. One of those items reads “stay connected to clients”. Happily, I’ve managed to do that throughout the last nine months or so. And out of that, through the turbulence, there’s been many lessons that have emerged, a lot of which has appeared throughout the episodes from the beginning until now. And I wanted to capture just five of the key lessons that we’ve learned from the pandemic that’s being visited on us, that nobody wanted.
The very first lesson is that leadership matters. If we go back to the financial crash, the rockstars during the financial crash, where the economists. The rockstars of the pandemic have certainly been the epidemiologists. They’re like household names. One such, Jack Lambert, who is professor of infectious diseases at UCD wrote an article a couple of months ago, an opinion piece for the Irish times where he advised of the top 10 things that could be done in order to combat the spread of the virus. Number four on the list was the wearing of masks, unsurprisingly.
What was more surprising was that number one on the list was the need for strong decisive leadership and accountability. So from somebody who’s a man of science, a man of medicine, an immunologist, the number one thing that he assessed that was necessary to combat the spread of the disease was leadership.
Leadership is necessary in normal times, but in times of chaos it becomes absolutely critical. One of the difficulties with leadership in normal times or ordinary times is that it’s impact and contribution is often unseen and invisible. Leadership has an actual material impact. There are so many examples of this. The most current and obvious example that I can see right in front of us is if you take the COVID cases and you compare the Northern Irish situation to the Republic of Irish situation. Here we have on a tiny Island with porous borders, one jurisdiction with one quarter of the population that has got four times the number of COVID cases.
And tell me that that has nothing to do with leadership.
The second lesson for leadership during the pandemic is the fact that people become doubled down versions of their true selves during a crisis. What I’m speaking about here is character. And all of us have had the experience of seeing the real character of people. Things that we hadn’t seen or expected before, another side to people that we hadn’t imagined or hadn’t witnessed.
And I’m talking about colleagues, I’m talking about family, I’m talking about neighbours. You see the thing about the workspaces, in normal times, people can wear their masks, adorn their camouflage, and they get away with it. However, expecting a narcissistic, micro-managing, prick of a leader to suddenly turn into Mahatma Gandhi during a crisis is just simply an exercise in hopeless self-delusion. The chaos, and the pandemic, is ruthless and unforgiving, just like the virus in terms of its exposure of people for better and for worse.
From a leadership perspective, it really does provide an Olympian challenge. And in the Olympics, you’ve got winners and losers. And we’ve seen people demonstrate capabilities and show up in ways that we never imagined. And they’re going to take the gold medal. Others are going to get the wooden spoon. The truth is people have been getting away with it during ordinary times. You get ruthlessly exposed, and reputations get built or broken, during the times of crisis.
The third lesson for leadership is that life is not fair. One of my favourite apocryphal stories from the 1970s was an interview that took place with JD Rockefeller, who was the wealthiest man in the world at the time. And the reporter asked him what the secret to success was and Rockefeller replied. He said, there are three things you need to do to be successful in life. He says you need to go to bed early. You need to get up early. And you need to strike oil. Well, this pandemic has affected people because some people have struck oil and some people have not. It’s a little bit like a game of chance, or musical chairs, where when the music stopped, depending on what your life circumstances were at that moment in time in March, was going to determine your experience. The slogan, “we’re all in this together”, which was there at the start, quickly became tired and worn. Whereas society went from a state of solidarity to a state of polarity as the non-discriminating virus had its impact and separated the haves from the have-nots. As leaders we’ve experienced the extreme rainbow of impacts along the continuum, from one dire extreme, to a another more happy extreme.
The leaders that have thrived are those who’ve been able to differentiate the situation of the chaos and the pandemic from the implications to the individuals that we were responsible for leading. The ability to meet people in their circumstances, where they were, or where they are, and authentically hold the space for them to help them empty their emotional cup.
The fourth lesson for leadership has been around the whole idea of what’s possible and the mindset of what is possible versus what’s impossible. If leadership is ultimately responsible for performance, then the number of people and leaders that I’ve encountered during the last nine months, who’ve prefaced their analysis or reflections of the situation with “I never would have imagined that…”. And you can fill in your own blanks. One leader, who was responsible for business continuity at one of the major banks, gave the example where at the start of the pandemic, the maximum capability they had for remote working securely was two and a half thousand people. Yet within a month, seven and a half thousand people were safely and securely working from home.
Everybody’s got their own version of this. And what it really does and brings into questions is the whole idea of our mental models and our expectations becoming our limitations. If leadership is really about performance, then uncapping the limitations and creating the environment for people to create incredible results, surely that’s the tenant and the very central kernel of leadership itself. Farmers don’t grow crops. They create the conditions for crops to grow. And leaders in that way are like farmers. We create the conditions for people and results to thrive. And if there are three things that leaders can learn and take away around this whole idea of “what’s possible” thinking, there are three caps that we can remove from ourselves that we typically or we often see with leaders in ordinary times.
The first is the requirement and the demand for perfect solutions. If there’s one thing this pandemic has taught us, is that good enough is the way towards constant iteration, innovation, and better outcomes. The second is the need to be right. We need to relax. And thirdly, this pandemic has debunked the idea or the notion of the leader as the person who has all the answers.
The final lesson, number five, is that the old world wasn’t perfect anyway. This time, last year I visited a client in San Francisco and I flew from Dublin to San Francisco three times in a six week period. Other colleagues in the organization did the same to service the need of the client in the semiconductor market. In each case, it took two days to get there and two days to get home. To service a client in a room where we needed to be there for the maximum of a day, and in some cases just half a day. When I looked back at it in reflection, it was madness, but it would never have changed if it weren’t for the pandemic.
Now, a year later, we are able to service the client and their global needs, not just based in San Francisco because it’s a global organization, scale it much greater ,and do it remotely from the war room back in Dublin. It wasn’t great for anybody back then. It wasn’t great for the client. It wasn’t great for us as a business. And it certainly wasn’t great for the planet. But it would have continued had it not been for the intervention of the current chaos.
Examples of this abound. Out there in the marketplace Olympus, for example, have got rid of their camera division. In July, Segway abandoned and produced the last of its upright mobile units that in 2001 were going to revolutionize mobile transportation. General Electric, they offloaded their light bulb division, which has been part of the furniture with GE going back all the way to Edison in 1892. This whole idea of systematic abandonment, the ability to look at what we do or what we used to do, the legacy items and the legacy elements and evaluate and ask ourselves the question; if we weren’t involved, knowing what we know now, would we choose to start it today? About a line of business, about a project, about a person, this has been a gift of the pandemic.
As a parting shot in episode 30, I’d like to quote two lines from a poem by Douglas Malloch, which says “Good timber does not grow with ease. The stronger wind, the stronger trees”.
And finally, finally, when I started the podcast at the beginning of March, we’d been trying to do a podcast and thinking about doing it forever, but it was only during the pandemic that we took the opportunity to avail of it. It’s been fantastic to get feedback along the way, but now that we’re at the end of the year, and this is the final episode of the year, I’m going to invite you to get in touch, connect on LinkedIn. Let me know what you’ve liked. What’s been useful. What’s been valuable to you. And anything that you’d like to change or anything that you’d like us to do differently into next year when we go into January. Cause this isn’t over yet.
So, with all that said, thank you for being part of the journey. Thank you for listening. Have a great Christmas break in so far as you can enjoy it.
And stay safe, stay sane, and stay connected.
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