I have recently been pondering the role of leadership in times of profound change, particularly in light of Covid-19 and the global climate crisis. What kind of thinking will be able to successfully guide leaders through these strange times? Leaders, who have grown used to hearing how they need to be able to manage complexity and even hold opposing views in their minds simultaneously, now have even more to think about.
Rolling with the idea that “What got us here, won’t get us there”, I have been talking to leaders in our networks about whether there is a ‘new’ interpretation of resilience that is surfacing.
One particular observation caught my attention in a provocative new book; ‘Regenerative Leadership, The DNA of life-affirming 21st century organizations’. Its authors Giles Hutchins and Laura Storm use a quote from leadership author and advisor Peter Drucker to set up their argument for a new approach, “In times of turmoil, the danger lies not in the turmoil but in facing it with yesterday’s logic.”
In the past, they argue, getting through adversity was all about macho interpretations of resilience: being steadfast and strong; having enough reserves to be able to withstand the onslaught. Essentially, being resilient was about battling on in a macho or classically patriarchal way, like George Mallory climbing Everest in a hacking jacket – arguably a triumph of energy and enthusiasm over proper preparation.
Hutchins and Storm offer up an interpretation of modern resilience as taking an holistic view of the world and our place within it as part of a living system, offering thoughts on business and how to rethink our approach at a systems level to regenerative ways of working that don’t deplete people or the planet. Whilst most companies work on limited liability in some shape or form, those that have responded to the crisis by investing and supporting their most important asset - their people, stand to reap the highest rewards. A possible indicator of this shift is that ESG investment indices have been holding up better through the pandemic than their broad-market counterparts.
Liz Benison, who leads Arriva in Mainland Europe, shared this observation with me on how her company has led with a human-centric approach during the pandemic crisis, “One of the things that I’ve been exploring (and has really stood us in good stead), is that yes, our leaders have been resilient, but they have also displayed remarkable compassion; for their passengers and the staff directly impacted, but also for the longer term implications of the pandemic in terms of job security and other societal outcomes.”
So is this ‘new’ resilience about leaders feeling able to think about feelings and emotions and factor in the human context for business scenarios in a more overt way? Hutchins and Storm talk about leaders unlearning how we have been taught to separate issues, using left-brain logic to deal with each thing in a tidy way, within its own boundaries. As in nature, they encourage us to see how issues are linked. Dealing with things in isolation, they say, creates more systemic problems.
After speaking to Toby Willison, who is the Executive Director at the Environment Agency and no stranger to crisis preparedness, he agreed that a culture shift is required and something that has to be worked at: “I have seen a huge shift over the last two decades from a macho “I’ll do every shift for as long as it takes” attitude to a wellbeing focussed response that recognises the importance of rest, recuperation and recovery. No longer is presenteeism seen as a badge of honour. But to embed this culture does require constant reinforcement and leadership.”
In another riff on nature, there are optimistic messages on the need for resilience in another book; Green Swans: The coming boom in regenerative capitalism, the latest work by John Elkington – (who coined the management idea of the triple bottom line of People, Planet, Profit). In his chapter on leadership, called ‘Swanning around Boardrooms’ Elkington quotes CEO advisor Roger Martin, whose view is that businesses are better off focusing on resilience than on efficiency. He argues that in striving for ever more efficient use of resources, there can be unintended negative consequences ‘to the extent that superefficient businesses create the potential for social disorder’. There is the separation at work as a negative force again. The remedy, according to Martin, is for business, government, and education to focus more strongly on a less immediate source of competitive advantage: resilience. This may reduce the short-term gains from efficiency but will produce a more stable and equitable business environment in the long run.
So perhaps, the New Resilience as well as being a clarion call for systems level thinking, is also an upgrade on business efficiency? Whichever interpretation you prefer, it feels like we need to redesign our business strategies to address systemic vulnerabilities which will help us focus our efforts to recuperate from and prepare for, the next crisis. Salman Rushdie summed up the general situation neatly in a recent interview with the Spectator when he said, ‘Things that would have seemed utterly improbable now happen on a daily basis’. The very rate at which the unexpected is now occurring is enough to destabilise the most stoic and steadfast leaders. Learning to pause, breathe and look at the bigger picture and take a longe- term view, is perhaps my favourite definition so far of what New Resilience looks like.