There’s no denying it: 2022 has been (another) year like no other and unpredictability has become the new normal. The Covid pandemic marked the end of a period of relative stability in business and economics, as well as social and world affairs. The shocks that arrived with the 21st century (for instance 9/11 and the financial crisis) were seen as events of surprising volatility against a background of stable, predictable progress and order. But this is now morphing into a future with sustained instability.
With this in mind, there are several lessons for leaders that stand out from 2022. Always remember the essentials – things are increasingly volatile and much is changing, but not everything. When attempting to reshape the UK economy Liz Truss seemed to forget that economic orthodoxy still matters. The lesson? Boldness and innovation are vital, but so too is an understanding of perennial truths. It’s important to develop the ability to distinguish temporary change from that which is permanent and lasting, as well as recognising the implications of change: what is driving it, and where that change is taking us.
Understanding and kindness are here to stay. People want to be heard and valued, they expect human virtues of openness, decency and inclusion, and they respond to leaders who understand the drivers of trust. These qualities include fairness, dependability, respect, openness, courage, unselfishness, competence, supportiveness, empathy, compassion. For instance, the chief executive of P&O Ferries was wrong in thinking it was acceptable to sack 800 employees in breach of employment law, and the whole business and brand reputation suffered as a result.
Be yourself and make sure that the authentic you is a decent member of the human race; someone who understands the difference between right and wrong and goes the extra mile to do the right thing. Show gratitude; this underrated emotion is effective at making other people feel better and makes you feel better too. It is hard to feel negative emotions (such as fear or anger) when you are grateful.
Communication, connection and empathy are vital. In unpredictable times, with people feeling bewildered at best and often fearful, leaders need to communicate, connect and engage with people, meeting them where they are. More than that, genuinely connecting with communities is essential for the long-term health of the business.
US Republicans selected many candidates for the mid-term elections who failed to connect with the electorate. Voters were unimpressed with politicians talking about politics, themselves, and the past. Understand who you need to connect with, and take time to address their issues and concerns. Focus both on the message and the media – how you connect. Use whatever media works for them and you.
Learn to live with paradox and remember that while speed matters, so too do direction and distance. The world is changing in ways that feel exceptional and unfamiliar, with new, surprising and far-reaching changes alongside shifts that we understand. These changes are felt in the power of paradox. In 2022 we saw the rise of volatility and disruption alongside opportunity and growth, and we now live in a world that is stubbornly interdependent and networked, yet increasingly tribal and insular. We are data, knowledge and information-rich, yet uncertain and apprehensive; swift to decide and act but slow to prepare and change.
Why does this matter? Because during times of change we look for certainty and the familiar, and the proliferation of paradox makes this harder. Also, paradox can be polarising: you either think one thing or the other, and it can increase the burden of change by introducing complication and confusion.
Recognise the importance of psychology in the way we lead and embrace a deeper level of understanding. Give people a guiding vision and purpose, not just a deadline or financial target; tell them where we are going together, why, and how.
Finally, understand that culture still eats strategy for breakfast. I may be wrong, but I think that Elon Musk’s directive that Twitter staff commit to a “hard-core culture… working long hours at high intensity… [where] only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade” is a big mistake. It seems out of step with our times and is unlikely to engage people (neither customers nor employees). In the long run, the workforce cannot be commanded, they need to be developed, respected, nurtured and sustained.
Or maybe 2023 will prove me wrong?