I have spent time searching, through the unprecedented crisis we are facing right now, for blogs and thoughts on leadership to help me to make sense of the decisions we are taking; to understand my response; and to validate and explain how I feel. The things that I have found which have helped me the most are those that I have instinctively reached for in any difficult period of life: poetry, and art.
Poetry connects the intensely personal with the universal in a way that is almost supernatural. I tend to start with TS Eliot, and the lines in East Coker that sum up being a human, even to my agnostically-inclined mind:
"I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting."
From that, I started to think about what leadership means to me, in a context where the ‘waiting’ of human existence has taken on a heroic quality, and where the unknown looms so large as to block out almost everything. What is leadership, when you can only see fragments of the road ahead, and where even they are constantly moving?
Leadership starts with taking responsibility. I consider it an absolute privilege to lead people; it is difficult, ephemeral work; and, often, the best leadership is that which we almost don’t notice.
In a crisis like this, the requirement to guide people forward and to be prepared to look ahead involves coping with uncertainty, managing your own natural concerns and fear separately, and is an exercise in making sense of something that is constantly changing before our eyes. Looking ahead in this context does not mean a five year strategy, or even a 12 month strategy. ‘Ahead’ means simply as far as the eye can see today. It is a responsibility to look up and out, and to start to shape what is coming next by looking straight at it and starting to develop a response, and to then connect plan that back into the reality of those around you.
This is often lonely work – I think of it as heading out into the unknown, not recognising the territory and then being unable to share that dislocation with those around you. Part of the responsibility becomes holding at least some of that uncertainty within, to allow others the time and space they need to operate and develop their own responses.
The next stage then becomes the need to reconnect the new reality back into the world everyone can see.
In this, really being able to "see" that reality, as it looks from a variety of perspectives, is critical. The modern workplace has focused on parity of experience, but this experience has undone that. Parents trying to homeschool, or to parent young children, are not in the same position as those without children; people in flats with no outside space are not in the same position in a lockdown as those with gardens. Those who live alone are not in the same position as those who don’t. As Emily Maitlis highlighted, to pretend that this is a universal experience is, at best, disingenuous and, at worst dangerous.
Leadership in this context is about recognising each other’s realities, and how they are connected to our own; and about building communities that are capable of doing the same. It’s about understanding that we are all in this together, but not in the same way, and being able to adapt and customise the picture of the future to make it meaningful to everyone. And finally, leadership is, for me, about creating narratives that make sense of the world – building a sense of coherence and agency across groups of people.
The role of narrative
The reality is no-one knows how this crisis will end, or when. No-one really knows what the ‘right’ thing to do is, and we can't even be sure what a good outcome would look like amongst the imperfect options we can see. Data is important, but even the most authentic looking graphs and plans are at their heart based on assumptions. Somehow, we have to plot a course through this that is proactive and involves making positive choices, and that cannot be simply one of fire-fighting.
In this context, we underestimate both the positive and negative power of narrative all the time - we think the narratives that swirl around us are ‘real’ and that those we tell ourselves are ‘made up’. In reality, the only difference is perspective.
In art, we see the same objects described over and over, each manifestation unique to the perspective of the artist, but each with the potential to shape our own understanding and view. Narrative is one way we come together, and leaders have a duty to create a narrative for those around them that helps us all to process this unfamiliar world we find ourselves in together, as well as individually.
If helping people to come together is the objective, the key questions become what are the skills we need to recognise and nurture in leaders, in whichever roles they operate; what is it that can help us to look ahead; to recognise other realities; and to draw people together into a common experience?
I think it starts with empathy - the ability to understand and to feel the human experience as something that exists far beyond your own.
And then authenticity - the willingness to behave in a way that is consistent with the values and ideals you espouse; to make compromises where required; to acknowledge mistakes; to learn visibly in front of those around you.
And courage - to make difficult decisions, to look forward, to understand that people can only bear so much reality at a time, to pick a course and to navigate it, to expose yourself by stepping forward.
And then finally, the one that is often forgotten (and is not one of my personal key strengths!) - patience.
"A marathon, not a sprint"
Normal may take some time to come back, and may never be what it was, but life is happening now. The patience to stay with the current reality; to work within it, and to lead within it, whilst waiting and watching patiently for whatever is coming next is invaluable in creating the space for empathy, authenticity and courage to develop and flourish.
Leaders are human, and make mistakes all the time. They can be good people and bad. Often, they are a mix of the best and worst of themselves. I have never thought of leaders as heroes. Understanding leadership, to me, means understanding that some of the best leaders are also deeply flawed human beings; and that some of the most deeply flawed human beings become leaders.
To lionise leaders is to ignore the power of following – the positive decision to trust another human being and to link your future to theirs – and the requirement on leaders to open up the space for really effective following.
Learning to lead through this crisis has deepened my appreciation and understanding of the skills that create and support positive following; it has reminded me how complex individual reality is and, above all, has cemented my sense of the process of leadership as both a privilege and a process not some magic that is the preserve only of a group of heroic individuals.
Every day, these lines from Eliot’s Little Gidding run through my head, as I make sense of what is happening around me:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
This experience is shaping and testing us all. We are exploring, in reality, things that many of us had never even explored in our minds.
Whenever we get to return to something that looks anything like the world we closed up in March 2020, we will know and appreciate that reality so much more than when we walked away from it into the unknown.
That knowledge, and the question it poses about the world we want to build after this, are the beginnings of the narrative we have yet to create, and one which has the potential to be the most powerful story of all.