Hi, I’m Ian McClean. I’m the founder of Flow Group and GreenLine Conversations. And this podcast has grown out of the chaos that’s been thrust upon us. During the podcast, I’m going to try and share with you the best of 25 years of helping corporate organizations deal and cope with change. So, as you’re out there, busy making sense of it all, trying to cope, and maybe, in some cases, trying to rebuild your organizations, I’m hoping that some of this can be of some assistance. We’ll keep it deliberately short because I know you’re busy. Let’s dive in.

EP 53 – Leadership in the New World (Dis)Order Part 1

I’m going to temporarily interrupt our series on the Manifesto for Leading in Chaos in 2022 to dedicate this episode to a question that I’ve been asked consistently and have delivered keynotes to organizations around over the past number of weeks. And it literally is now that we’re at this point to try to define and understand for leaders what exactly it means to be a leader in the new world disorder.

So here it goes. We are living undoubtedly in a historical time. In the future, when we look back, this period will be a strong feature in the history books. For sure. And the only thing we don’t know at this point, and we will only learn through history in the future, is what the full implications of the pandemic and its impact will be.

It’s the most disruption that any of us have experienced and all of us as a global society simultaneously in our lifetime. And there are many indicators of the impact of it that we could draw upon. One that just took my attention recently is there’s a book called The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist, which talks about the manifestation of trauma and stress in the body. And it’s been on the New York times bestseller list for 187 weeks consecutively. It tells us something about what’s going on in our society and amongst our people. Professionally, at this point, many organizations that I’m seeing and working with are drawing breath, trying to understand what’s going on, what the implications are, what it means, and what the future holds.

I’m going to talk about the context that we’re currently in and some of the features of it, as I see it, the whole idea of leadership and the problem with leadership, identifying what people are going through, limbically at this point, and as a leader, what do you need to do mostly to connect with that? So buckle up.

I’m going to begin with a quote. The quote goes as follows: “For some organisations, near-term survival is the only agenda item. Others more fortunate are still peering through the fog of uncertainty. Thinking about how to position themselves for when the crisis has finally passed and things return to normal. The question is, what will normal look like? While no one can say how long the uncertainty will last, what we find on the other side will not look like the normal of recent years.”

There’s nothing particularly unusual about that quote. The only thing that is unusual is that the quote is taken from the backend of 2009 at the end of the financial crash. And it’s from the managing partner, or then managing partner, at McKinsey’s. Interestingly, that was the last major disruption that we suffered as a society globally. And whilst what we’ve experienced for the last few years during the pandemic is different, in many dimensions to the disruption that we suffered back then, there’s one thing from my perspective that’s exactly the same. Back then, the hallmark of the financial crash was that we observed how it affected leaders’ behaviours. It brought out the best in some leaders, and it brought out the worst behaviours in others. Similarly, during the last two years, I’ve witnessed exactly the same thing happen. And I guess you have, too. There are people that performed and rose to the occasion in ways that you never expected. And other people that you might’ve expected more from, who disappointed and didn’t come up to the mark.

You know, during the pandemic in 2020, you had the Tokyo Olympics. One of the features of the Tokyo Olympics was that it saw more personal bests recorded than at any other previous Olympics. And equally it saw more personal worsts on the other side. So there’s something about the heat of battle that when it gets turned up to a particular degree, it sorts out the wheat from the chaff. Some people rise and get a gold medal. Other people fall by and get the wooden spoon. As Warren Buffett once described it, in a different context, “It’s only when the tide goes out, you see who’s swimming in the nude.”

So where are we now? Where we are now is in a bit of a Twilight Zone. Another way of labelling it is, it’s the Chaos Room. And the feature of the chaos room, the threefold, the first thing is that the old certainties that we were used to and the comforts of the past have gone, and they’re not returning. The future is still uncertain. We don’t know what the new world order is going to look like. And we still are left with more questions than answers at this moment in time.

From a leadership perspective, there’s no blueprint, there’s no roadmap, there’s just you. And I’m reminded of what Bob Nardelli said. He was Chief Executive of Home Depot, which had got to 50 billion in retail sales, the first company ever to do so in US history. And he said at the time, “There’s one thing that I’ll guarantee: what got us to the first 50 billion isn’t going to get us to the next 50 billion.”

It is not an easy place to be a leader, because it’s characterized the present by confusion. And one of the adaptations we need to make as a leader is we need to realize that uncomfortable is okay. In fact, as we’re going through this transitioning phase and trying to figure it out amongst all the chaos, it’s necessary to feel uncomfortable. It’s natural to feel uncomfortable, and it’s okay. As the Crossfit slogan goes, “We need to get comfortable with uncomfortable”.

And on the positive side, all growth, all development, is on the other side of some discomfort, physical, mental, psychological, educational. A final observation that I have about the period is the importance that leadership occupies and the space it occupies whenever there is chaos and, confusion, and uncertainty around. And this was highlighted to me at one point during the pandemic where the head of infectious diseases at UCD, Jack Lambert, was asked to write an opinion piece for the Times. And the title of the piece was “The 10 things we need to do in order to combat the pandemic” or the spread of it.

And on there, there were the usual things like the wearing of masks and travel restrictions and so on, but the thing that was most startling was that the number one item identified was the need for strong leadership and accountability. So here’s a man of science talking about a disease and a virus of which he’s an expert, and how to mitigate the risks associated with it, and the number one thing that he identifies as being most critical and most important is nothing to do with science or medicine. Leadership.

Leadership is necessary in peacetime, but it’s absolutely vital and critical during times of chaos, uncertainty, and doubt.

So if leadership is that important and critical, particularly now, let’s just reach for the leadership handbook—except there isn’t one. If you take the word leadership, punch it into your Google search, and you’ll get 4.2 billion results. Refine it a bit, ask for leadership books, and you’ll get just the 5.5 million entries. Confused?

Part of the problem is that not only have we endured a pandemic, but with the acceleration of information, we’ve also endured or are enduring an infodemic. And as a leader, you can’t possibly keep up or keep pace with the volume of data and information that’s being created. So it’s at moments like this that I tend to ask the audience. One of the questions that I’ve asked leaders consistently over nearly three decades is to think about the best leader that they’ve ever experienced. Because everybody’s an expert in leadership, because we’ve all had the experience of having had good leaders, and having had bad leaders, so we know the difference.

So here’s the question that I have for you, as you scroll through your Rolodex of leaders that you’ve ever had in your life, mentors, coaches, people of influence managers and bosses. And I ask you to identify the person who’s top of the charts for you, who stands out. Who’s the best leader you’ve ever had?

Think of that person. And now, having chosen the person, the second question that I have more pertinently is, why did you choose that person? What is it about them that made them better than anybody else? What were their characteristics? What did they do? What were their behaviours, if you were describing them? And gathering all the responses that people come up with, the wild and various, it might seem chaotic, but actually all the responses typically can be categorized in one of three ways.

The first category of response is that the leader was smart, really intelligent, high IQ, high get-it factor, quick in their decision-making, very insightful. That’s one category, which I call the IQ. The second is that they were really good at their craft, whether they were coders, whether they were salespeople, whether they were engineers, they really understood the craft of what they did, the discipline that they occupied, and they were able to work their way around it in a very, very skilful, meaningful way. That’s the technical side. And the third category is that they created an impact that was both motivational and inspirational for me. And I call that the EQ basket.

Interestingly, when you take and aggregate people’s characteristics, and you put them in the three baskets, over time, about 70% of people’s responses of what they associated with, great leadership in their experience has got to do with the EQ basket. These were characteristics that leaders demonstrated that enabled you to be inspired and motivated and that connected with what mattered most to you.

This is often very surprising for people whenever they look at the data. Because if you look at the three categories and you think about it in the context of where businesses and organizations do their investments, pay their attention, and spend their dollars, which category do they most hire for? What do they reward in organizations? And what do they invest in developing? The least of the three is in the area that seems to matter the most.

IQ by the way, is found to be limited in terms of leadership. Once you get to a point of IQ, beyond that point, you get into diminishing returns. People tend to, with higher IQs, fall into what’s known as the intelligence trap, where they start to get very dogmatic about their own ideas. They become inflexible, and they get stuck in their own biases. On the technical side, developing and increasing technical capability is great because it helps you do better and become more expert. And whilst they’re both valuable contributions, they’re often confused with, but they’re not leadership.

So then the question is, what is leadership? And without subjecting you to a further Google search, let me give you or suggest a very simple definition of leadership or the essence of it. Leaders need to do two things. They need to, first of all, set the direction because if the leader isn’t setting the direction, then who is, and where are we going? And the second thing is the leader needs to impact people in ways that inspires other or others to want to follow. Because Leaders are only leaders because of followers. And if there are no followers, then there’s no need for leadership. And leading followers is a wholly human endeavour. As Jack Ma put it, the more digital our world becomes, the more we must emphasize what makes us most human.