The leadership challenges that arrived with 2022 were profound, highlighting several trends and bringing with it several vital lessons. From eye watering inflation and interest rates to intense recruitment and supply chain problems, disasters induced by climate change, political instability, economic recession and war, there’s no denying that 2022 has been a year like no other. Taken together with the transformational experience of COVID, these issues have started searing themselves into the psyche, mindset and behaviour of customers, employees, stakeholders and societies more widely –with major implications for organisations and leaders.
Above all, it is clear that the COVID pandemic marked the end of a period of relative stability in business, economics, social and world affairs. The shocks that arrived with the 21st century (such as 9/11 and the financial crisis) can now be seen as events of traumatising volatility against a background of largely stable, predictable progress and order. This is now shifting into a future with sustained instability and unpredictability. With this in mind, there are several lessons for leaders that stand out from 2022 and that will remain relevant for at least the next decade.
Speed matters, but so do direction and distance
When sudden and far-reaching change arrives, we need to shift gears fast. But when we live in a time of permanent, disjointed change that is both unfamiliar and far-reaching, our ability to constantly sprint erodes. This has several implications. First, leaders need to distinguish between temporary and permanent change. Temporary change may need us to hunker down or flex for a period, whereas permanent change often requires a different, longer-term response. Second, while we need to adapt only to those events that require action – and here speed is often essential – we also need to understand who we are (our values), where we are heading (our vision), why that matters (our purpose) and how we will get there (our strategy). The problem is that these guiding issues are sometimes forgotten or our panicky rush for agility and speed.
Remember the essentials
Things are increasingly unpredictable and volatile, and much is changing – but not everything. Customers are still vital; people work much better when they are supported, challenged, cared for and listened to; businesses need to be accepted by the communities they serve; boldness, innovation and risk enable us to make progress; the quest for improvement must be constant; courage and trust are vital and universal; being inclusive makes many vital things (from teamwork and innovation to decision making) much better, as well as simply being the right thing to do; cash is good, debt is bad. None of these should be a surprise. Despite many truths being apparent since at least the time of Shakespeare they are sometimes neglected, a casualty of our mistaken belief that because so much has changed, everything has changed.
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, and compassion.
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. Personal leadership qualities matter. Leaders need to be self aware, emotionally intelligent and open, authentic and decent, as well as capable, courageous and effective. They need to listen and ask, not simply tell; and they need to coach, guide and shape as well as learn.
In these situations, the solutions are to recognise the importance of psychology in the way we lead and embrace a deeper level of understanding. Also vital is the ability to provide a guiding vision and purpose, not just a deadline or financial target. Tell people where we are going together, why, and how. Finally, Peter Drucker’s comment that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is still true. Elon Musk’s command that Twitter employees commit to a “hard-core culture… working long hours at high intensity… [where] only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade” is a colossal mistake. It is unlikely to engage people, alienating customers as well as employees. It also ignores the truth people and talent cannot be commanded, they need to be developed, respected, nurtured, and sustained. And it neglects a simple truth: people want and value modern leadership.