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To lead is to pause

Take a moment to cast your mind back to the beginning of the year. Think about your expectations for the year, notice what thoughts or feelings emerge as you let go of aspirations that were to shape your year. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives on a global scale never seen before in our lifetimes. It has been nothing short of a global pause in our way of life, and instead of trying everything we can to get back to “normal”, I invite you to take a moment with me to contemplate the importance of this pause, and to consider the possibility that the most crucial task of leadership in this crisis may be to have conversations to pay attention to what is emerging through this pause? Let go, for a moment, of the frenetic activity and reflect on the situation we find ourselves in.

To take a helicopter view of this crisis it is useful to dip into the complex nature of our society, organisations and the ecosystems in which we are embedded. Complexity science suggests there is a transitional region between order and disorder in complex adaptive systems, such as organisations, which has the greatest potential for novelty. Known as the edge of chaos, this is a phase state in which changes which would be unlikely under typical conditions, becomes more likely. Businesses that have displayed reluctance to adopt flexible and remote working practices for decades are now acclimatising to a new normal. If we are able to deal with the chart a course through the uncertainty, we may find a silver lining alongside the tragedy of this pandemic.

A key challenge is the nature of problems being faced not only in this pandemic, but increasingly due to broader challenges such as climate change. Many of the most critical problems faced by humanity are wicked problems. Wicked problems are messy and are often transdisciplinary. They are often symptoms of other problems and typically require engagement with a range of experts. Zooming out from our current dilemma, we can start to trace a line between many of the problems we face that at first glance seem like fundamentally different problems. Jane Goodall, the world renowned  primatologist and anthropologist comments that “It is our disregard for nature and disrespect of the animals we share the planet with that has caused this pandemic.” The destruction of the natural habitat increases the spread of disease between animals and ultimately to cross the species barrier to humans.

Whilst we find ourselves in a severe health crisis, if we zoom out it is clear that there is a broader threat to planetary health. We’ve damaged planetary health through destroying the natural systems on which life depends. On top of this climate change increases the risk of natural disasters, the intensity of fires and storms. As we run the risk of an ever increasing cascade of disasters, is it not time to realise that for now to lead means to have conversations that allow us to collectively discover the pregnant in the pause.

Perhaps we need is to smell the fresh air again as the pollution in our cities subside, and to rethink our lives and what we are building through our businesses and societies. The journey starts with feeling and accepting the painful situation we find ourselves in as a species. I suspect that it will be through feeling that our best thinking emerges. This will be difficult as we scramble to protect our loved ones and livelihoods. To make progress, we need to do something as leaders which may feel quite counter-intuitive. We need to engage, not just control. Whilst prominent leadership researchers such as Daniel Goleman supports the use of directive leadership styles to mitigate risk in a crisis, the messiness of wicked problems usually requires us to engage with a wide spectrum of experts from different disciplines. Adopting a coaching style of leadership can help in these conversations with both individuals and groups, to foster new values-based coalitions to fundamentally redesign our way of life.

This is a fundamental redirection of leadership away from an obsession with performance and growth, which has been pursued at all cost, and with blatant disregard for our fellow humans and species which whom we share this beautiful planet. In all corners of society we need to mobilise coalitions of people who can help to shape the future in a values-driven way. So instead of fretting about your productivity during lockdown and setting a new set of performance goals, take some time to contemplate a broader vision. Complex and fast changing contexts require us to have broader fuzzy visions which can guide our direction in an agile manner. Micro goals can help you to progress whilst remaining open to turbulence in the environment.

Maybe, one day, we will look back and see this time as a crucial opportunity to redirect the course of our species, grateful, that we didn’t let a good crisis go to waste. Winston Churchill’s words are as apt today as they were during the Second World War. Perhaps we will discover that this pause was indeed meaningful.

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