Crisis – a leader’s friend in disguise

Man in crisis

“How did I get here?” asked the reluctantly departing CEO. “How did we get here?” question citizens in a Brexit-Trump world. “What now?” is their coupled question. A growing suite of societal crises threaten to fracture governments, businesses and communities. Yet perhaps this is a natural part of our collective evolution which, with wise leadership, can unleash a new and productive phase of individual, corporate and social enlightenment.

Throughout our lives, each of us encounter challenges. Some are small ‘speed-bumps’ that don’t alter our course much. They might even be engaging and energising. Others are more serious and confronting. They can sneak up on us, perhaps because we’ve missed or chosen to ignore the warning signs. We can be thrown off course, left feeling stranded, angry and anxious.

Often our initial response to these situations doesn’t help. We work harder, doing the “right” and “sensible” things. We revert to old ways of working, hoping they have some useful effect, often to little avail.

People grow through change

Leading behavioural scientists explain that these moments of crisis can catalyse our greatest periods of personal growth. When people realise their current and past ways of working are no longer suited to their role and circumstances, new ways need to be discovered. As this happens, we learn, take on new information and gain insight. Our brains quite literally evolve, becoming more cognitively complex. Put crudely, this adaptation builds our capacity for wisdom.

For some people this process will take years, even a lifetime. The more we avoid or resist challenges, blaming others for our woes, the longer it will take. Humility and openness to learning is a deciding factor.

Organisations face crises too.

But while comprised of people, organisations are nonetheless artificial constructs. This affords them a key advantage in dealing with crises: with mindful leadership they can negotiate crises more quickly, effectively and with relatively less pain. The learning process an individual must face can be short-circuited.

It’s within our current and emerging societal context that things become trickier. The complexity of situations we face make them more difficult to discern, and the multiplicity of stakeholders with influence and control makes a response complicated too. This doesn’t mean that solutions need be complex, but designing elegantly simple solutions that get adopted requires considerable skill and a constructive attitude.

Communities have equivalent choices

Communities, whether co-located or connected virtually, have the same choices as individuals. They can reject their challenges, or engage with them. On face value, it seems that voters are currently inclined to revert to old ways, embracing isolation, protectionism and nationalism. Vulnerability and fear are fuelling news, views and stories that purport to explain the complex world, doing so in a way that connects to their most deeply held concerns.

Yet complex, entangled situations that pervade our modern world cannot be managed by becoming insular. Doing so is self-serving, naïve and most likely delays and magnifies the inevitable crises. For example, one need only look to the looming power supply, climate and healthcare crises that Australia and other western nations face.

Maturing leadership

To protect and strengthen ourselves, our economy and society requires a different style of leadership and followership, involving:

1. Transparent problem definition: Far more effort and attention must be put into understanding problems and what outcomes we seek. In many business and public sector situations these things are ill-defined. As a consequence, much effort and investment goes into poorly conceived, ineffective and costly solutions.

2. Leverage of collective power: We must understand how each of us is part of the system we want to change. This makes it hard to see and understand the system. So we must learn, think and problem solve with others that bring essential insight, resources and authority. This includes adversaries because they too are part of the system.

3. Practice faster, adaptive management: Most of the important issues faced by business and government involve complex, dynamic systems. The consequence is that real, enduring solutions can only emerge over time through some level of trial and error. The time to success can be accelerated if a more interactive, real-time approach to learning and adjustment is embraced.

4. Skilful dialogue: These practices must be underpinned by constructive dialogue and debate. Too often in political and business discourse it’s unclear what is being debated. Where disagreement sits is unclear – do we have the wrong strategy, or the right strategy poorly executed? Or does disagreement exist at a more fundamental level about outcomes sought, or even our core values?

These leadership practices reflect the governance challenge of our age – to create and sustain the space, and the support, to achieve enduring, inclusive growth over time. Leaders must rise above short-termism in the face of stock traders hovering over daily market reports and quarterly results, and politicians lurching in response to polls and the 24-hour media cycle.

Followers are equally accountable

Leaders cannot do this alone. ‘Followers’ – employees, citizens – must evolve beyond reactivity and subservience, understanding their place in shaping the system. Followers are an integral, influential part of commercial and socio-political systems with an equal responsibility for our collective prosperity. People and economies prosper when they feel secure and believe growth and opportunity is available. Only the fortunate and powerful survive uncertainty well.

We all need actively engaged citizens and employees, particularly supporting those leaders who don’t profess to be right, but who articulate how value might be created, and how failure, learning and adaptation will be supported in the pursuit of prosperity. It’s about keeping leaders authentically accountable, with support.

Crises can be a gift

The numerous challenges we face, while concerning and painful, are also a gift that we ignore at our peril. They are a tremendous opportunity for learning and growth.

As so eloquently expressed by Walt Kelly in his American cartoon strip, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Kelly invites us to interrogate our beliefs and values and the role we play in our lived experience. Are we conscious that we shape the systems in which we live and work? Are we prepared to adjust the mental and institutional structures that shape our lives? Are we at risk of undermining values like liberty, progress, the rule of law and pluralism in society in favour of short-term self-satisfaction? Are we open to learning and playing a constructive role to achieve inclusive growth?

Our technological capacity to shape our homes, our work places and the planet has never been greater. How they will be shaped depends on our beliefs. Beliefs can change. Wisdom can grow. Whether that occurs is a choice we each own.

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Nicholas Fleming

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