Crisis has a way of revealing, course-correcting and recalibrating what leadership really means. How we respond to the COVID-19 crisis says more about who we are, and how we lead, than it does about the crisis itself. Huge winds of change are rolling in around us, toppling old outdated systems and structures, resulting in a true shift in consciousness. We are watching in real time as a virus, similar to the common cold, renders all standards of human hierarchy meaningless.
From British royalty (Prince Charles) to American royalty (Tom Hanks) anyone is susceptible to COVID-19. The standards that made someone powerful in the past are irrelevant in the present. The same is true for leaders in an organisation. What leaders need during a crisis is not a predefined response plan but behaviours and mindsets that will prevent them from overreacting to yesterday’s developments and help them to look ahead.
The leaders who have the biggest impact on the most people are rarely the “official” leaders at the top. Their influence extends beyond their official capacity to become the face of courage for many people because they reveal an authenticity and urgency that reflects what people are feeling. The same might be true within your organisation. Anyone still relying on their title to validate their sense of power or control will find out very soon: that title is meaningless.
“Sometimes you need a little crisis to get your adrenaline flowing and help you realise your potential.”
Humanity’s Tower Moment
The Tower traditionally represents destruction, chaos and unexpected rapid change. The Tower is a symbol for ambition that is constructed on faulty premises. The destruction of the Tower must happen in order to clear out the old ways and welcome something new. The Tower represents change in the most radical and momentous sense. Humanity’s Tower Moment is the collapse of the standardisation model – the model of leadership based on command-and-control, hierarchy and silos. The one that defined the measures of success for people and only rewarded those who met the measures. It was about creating barriers, defining the narrative, putting people in boxes and protecting the establishment.
Standardisation creates efficiency, and that was a reasonable goal in a world where things were predictable. However, efficiency is not resilient. Resilience requires adaptability, and adaptability requires the freedom for people to be their highest, most individual selves.
“Every time a crisis arrives at the doorstep of humanity, remind yourself – I am what stands between humanity and injustice – I am what stands between humanity and discrimination and disparities – I am what stands between humanity and dictators.”
From #MeToo to #PleaseNotMe
Most of us have been ordered to stay at home. Consider for a moment these two contrasting scenarios:
First, a group of 1000 people all being standardised into “efficiently” moving in one direction and hunkering down together. They can continue to get their work done because they’re on the same schedule. It’s efficient to keep them in one place sheltered and fed, because they are all doing the same thing, in the same place, following the same rules. And because of that, they are all vulnerable to one tiny coronavirus.
Second, the same group of 1000 people dispersed into their individual homes across a wide geographic area. They can tap their own resources, tend to their own families, create their own schedules, tackle their assignments at their own pace. Things are chaotic, because no one is on the same schedule, no one is doing the same thing at the same time, no one is in the same place. And because of that, they are resilient.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
The Age of Personalisation
There are elements of standardisation still present, showing us how a balance between standardisation and personalisation can exist. Certainly, the decision to stay home has been made for us – a standard has been set. Also, people in their individual homes are following similar standardised protocols for washing their hands and sanitising everything they touch. However, people are also expressing their individuality from their own homes by sharing with the world their humour, their art, their positive messages, and their strong opinions.
Individuality and personalisation might appear to be chaotic, and we tend to (mistakenly) think of chaotic as all bad. Standardisation might appear to be efficient, and we tend to (mistakenly) think of efficient as all good. We must shift from ruling by standardisation to leading with personalisation.
“Elite Hysteria: Definition – Groups of elites that set up harems of underage teenagers to satisfy their rampant sexual desires.”
We’re All Being Forced into a Massive Reset
Let’s be real here: Lines are being crossed. Rights are being violated. Institutions are crumbling. Things are falling apart. That was the case even before the pandemic because the limits of standardisation are now being revealed. We’re witnessing the collapse of an ideology that believed transparency, authenticity and vulnerability were weaknesses while secrecy, playing the part and pretending to know the answers were strengths. People are awakening to see right through that false power and bravado.
We are witnessing the massive limitations, the appalling lack of readiness and the sheer lack of will, fight and grit that leading in the age of standardisation brings. While it’s important to have procedures, systems and protocols, people have grown tired of the overly regimented, standardised ways of doing things. This is one of many reasons why standardisation fails in the age of “me.” It’s not usually about how to standardise what is best for the individual – but rather the other way around.
In standardisation, we’re told what to do inside the box we’re given. We’re forced to assimilate for the sake of efficiency. This is a false foundation begging for a Tower Moment! We are individuals with an incredible variety of expertise, talents and experiences. Organisations will not survive a reset of this magnitude if they are not activating and elevating the individual capacity of every single employee.
“We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.”
Complex Adaptive Systems
One of the great miracles of nature is a starling murmuration. Together, in flight, in mesmerising flocks that sometimes number in the hundreds of thousands, they are a breathtaking wonder, a pulsating, swooping, living, harmonised whole, seemingly defying the laws of nature while defining nature itself. Systems thinkers love murmurations because they are beautiful illustrations of a complex adaptive system – a system in which a perfect understanding of the individual parts does not automatically convey a perfect understanding of the whole system’s behaviour.
Human systems – like your organisation – are complex adaptive systems. Ironically, by forcing us apart, the pandemic is amplifying our ability to synchronise with each other, like a flock of starlings. This phenomenon offers a key insight into how leadership must include both leading and following.
In 1987, computer scientist Craig Reynolds created a simulation proving that complex flock behaviour in starlings could be replicated through individuals following only three basic rules to create their different patterns of movement:
- nearby birds would move further apart,
- birds would align their direction and speed, and
- more distant birds would move closer.
In 2008, a group in Italy reconstructed starling positions in 3D. This showed that the birds sought to match the direction and speed of the nearest seven or so neighbours. In other words, each starling (individual part) is following simple rules, and the result is that the flock (system) exhibits a mesmerising pattern of synchronisation that cannot be easily explained or understood from the outside in. This is why it’s a complex adaptive system.
“We do not create our destiny; we participate in its unfolding. Synchronicity works as a catalyst toward the working out of that destiny.”
We are seeing remarkable examples of starling-like murmuration in response to the pandemic. It’s crucial for leaders to understand why and how this synchronisation is happening, so they can work with it, as opposed to fighting it.
Grocery stores went from business-as-usual to empty shelves, practically overnight. One day, there was an ample supply of toilet paper and paper towels, and the next day they were gone. Then it was flour and pasta, and later, soap and cleaning products. No one told shoppers what to hoard and when, and yet hoarding proceeded with amazing synchronicity, as if choreographed, like a starling murmuration.
With social distancing measures sending most of us home and restricting our movements, the only way to connect with our local community has been to consume local news or to talk with neighbours and friends on the phone or online. The mood within and across the community changes with remarkable speed and synchronisation. From a sense of safety and calm one day (“at least it’s not here”), to fear and panic the next (as exhibited in the grocery stores). From feeling good about doing our civic duty by staying in and avoiding travel, to expressing anger and frustration at being unable to go to the park or beach. From shunning masks and gloves and defiantly hanging out with people despite warnings from public health officials, to wearing masks and gloves and diligently avoiding people. While some of these flip-flops are the direct result of people obediently following the instructions of authority figures, the speed and coordination with which these changes ripple through the metaphorical flock has been astonishing.
What’s Going On?
Social distancing has kept us isolated, locked away, only able to observe, understand, and draw conclusions about the world based on what we see on our screens. We’re exposed to a fraction of the high variety of experiences we are used to under normal circumstances. We are limited to the people in our immediate vicinity and we can only see our work colleagues, family and friends on video conferencing screens. We are like a flock of starlings, each stimulated into coordinated motion by our immediate neighbours.
Why this Insight is Crucial for Leaders
As a leader, it’s incredibly important right now to make good, quick decisions and to send strong, clear, and consistent signals. Your “flock” is paying attention like never before, and it’s never been more important for you to lead them effectively.
At the same time, those good, quick decisions are directly dependent on the people around you. Leadership means something very different in the context of a flock of starlings: it is distributed, it is inclusive, and it is completely reliant on effective, ongoing, multi-directional communication. Every bird must be both a leader and a follower.
“Put life first and build systems to support life instead of putting money (work) first and having your family support your career.”
3 Leadership Insights from Starlings
Whether you are facing an economic crisis or a shift in business focus, here’s what you can learn from a flock of starlings:
- Distributed Leadership
Distributed leadership and empowerment are crucial in navigating this crisis because you can’t centrally know everything that’s going on, you can’t decide everything for everybody, and your complex adaptive system needs to be able to quickly adapt. This means that everyone must act as sensors and know how to alert the flock in real-time when they sense new threats and opportunities. The trigger for an important new direction could come from anywhere.
Each of your people – whether back-office or front-line, seasoned veteran or relative newbie, C-suite executive or individual contributor – is an essential part of your organisation’s nervous system. A key signal may come from anywhere, and you simply cannot predetermine who will pick it up. Everyone in your organisation needs to be on full alert and fully included in the task of detecting and communicating what’s going on around them.
3. Effective Communication
Your communication channels must be always-on, transparent, and trustworthy. Rapid course-corrections are reliant on the effective and efficient transmission of reliable information from anywhere to anywhere. This goes well beyond your technological infrastructure, to the core of leadership and culture. To be clear, your organisation is not a flock of starlings. It shouldn’t be mindlessly shifting direction at the whims of any one individual. Right now, however, the conditions are ripe for murmuration.
Good information, discovered and shared by anyone, communicated efficiently and effectively, can enable the rapid shifts you need to make in a volatile environment. False information, gossip, distrust, and misdirection will also have an outsized impact and lead to rapidly executed bad decisions under these conditions (like grocery hoarding).
“There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
— Alexandre Auguste Ledru
7 Leadership Lessons for Leading in the Age of “ME”
These are leadership lessons for expanding your influence, advancing your career; guiding your organisation to greater success, and helping those you lead to do the same. It’s no longer just about what you know, but what you do with what you know.
1. An Entrepreneurial Attitude is the Difference Between Reinvention and Complacency
Entrepreneurship just isn’t a business term anymore; it’s a way of life. You don’t need to be an entrepreneur to be entrepreneurial. It’s about having an entrepreneurial attitude. An attitude centred on continuous renewal and reinvention of your business and yourself as a leader allows you to sustain success and reach for significance. Without an entrepreneurial attitude, companies cannot lead, grow and innovate during uncertain times. When you have been operating on cruise control, it makes it very difficult to start reinventing in a moment’s notice.
The entrepreneurial attitude is a mindset; it must be a cultural foundation embedded in the minds of everyone in the organisation. Clearly, it’s a challenge to reinvent within industries that have been in place for decades, but it’s not impossible. You can start to employ the entrepreneurial attitude by injecting new talent, new perspectives, new resources and new relationships.
2. Continuously Refresh Your Thinking and Be Courageous Enough to Apply It
Execution is what matters if you are in the business of winning! We all have great ideas, yet many of them are never grounded so they dissipate. Then we find our competitors doing things we thought about 5 years ago. Great leadership is about keeping the organisation on its toes and refreshing the way it thinks. Regular examination of existing systems and practices, with the expectation of making things better, is essential. If you don’t have that discipline in place, the fiercely competitive marketplace will leave you in the dust.
Leaders must keep themselves refreshed with new knowledge, skill-sets and aptitudes. Time is your most valuable asset and it’s up to you to determine how to best maximise it. Be courageous, refresh your thinking and implement what you learn. Great athletes and coaches are always adjusting and tweaking their approaches to their sport. They are in constant search of elevating their game. Leaders must also do the same.
3. A Wiseman Forfeits his Fortune when he Does not Trust Himself
Trusting yourself is the ability to know your strengths well enough that they allow you to navigate your workplace successfully and influence outcomes. It’s the ability to trust your gut and know that when preparation meets the opportunities that are in front of you, your natural talents, capabilities, and skill-sets will get you through any situation. How many times does your gut brain tell you to take action, and you don’t listen? Do you wait for those around you to take the calculated risks that you are too hesitant to take yourself?
Effective leadership is about timing and when you don’t trust yourself, you miss the opportunities to create impact and influence. You also potentially disrupt momentum along the way. When you don’t trust yourself enough, you are irresponsibly leading the people and the organisation that you serve. If you don’t trust you, why should anyone else?
4. Adversity may Make or Break You – But it Primarily Reveals You
Leaders are faced with adversity almost every day. How you confront it and lead through it will be the defining moments in your career. Adversity primarily reveals you. In many ways, adversity is subjective. What others might see as a big problem – you might see as a situation that is easily manageable. When you see adversity through a lens of opportunity, it gives you a leg-up and a powerful competitive advantage. How you manage adversity will shape the way others see the real leader that you are. This is when your most authentic self is put into the spotlight.
5. A Leader’s Success is Never Won or Lost in One Instant. It’s Always a Culmination.
Leadership is a journey and you can never go at it alone. The significance of your leadership tenure is defined by your complete body of work. As such, it is the culmination of the work you do, how it all ties together, and how you handle the rough patches along the way that eventually forms your legacy. Consistency is the name of the game and if you cannot sustain it, you begin to lose value for the platform you are creating to influence outcomes.
6. Give to Others in Faith, Not in Expectation.
Leadership is about having the best interests of others at all times. It’s about sharing the harvest of the momentum that you are building with others. Leaders must recognise that it is their responsibility to inspire and unite – and in doing so they expand their influence through others. Leadership is about making those around you better by being a great teacher, investing in relationships, making sound decisions and avoiding procrastination and complacency. It’s ultimately about serving the needs of people and the organisation. While this may sound warm and fuzzy, serving others is an investment in people. One day they may give back to you and the organisation more than you ever expected. However, do not go into it expecting others to reciprocate; that is when you become more self-serving and blinded to what your role as a leader actually is.
7. Tell me Who you Associate With and I’ll Tell you How you Lead
The people you decide to associate yourself with greatly influence your intentions, the decisions you make, and what will ultimately shape your leadership brand. Regularly re-evaluate your network, friends and relationships. Ask yourself the value that each person represents towards making you a better person and more effective leader. Further evaluate how they influence and shape the ways you think, act and innovate. Are they helping you elevate your strengths or merely accentuating your weaknesses?
Find ways to refresh and strengthen your network and become more critical about allowing others to enter into your domain. You cannot afford to deal with people that constantly create disruption and drain your energy.
“We can’t be afraid of change. You may feel very secure in the pond that you are in, but if you never venture out of it, you will never know that there is such a thing as an ocean, a sea. Holding onto something that is good for you now, may be the very reason why you don’t have something better.”
This is the Time for Courage
Today, in our age of personalisation, leadership means being courageous enough to be compassionate, to allow others to influence in their own way, to listen through actions. It’s about being courageous enough to set aside metrics that are no longer relevant, even if that means appearing to fail in the eyes of people who still cling to those metrics.
Leadership today is about breaking down barriers and giving people the freedom to create previously unseen opportunities to elevate their own capacity and the capacity of the organisation. The limits of standardisation remind us that without strategy, change is merely substitution not evolution. Standardisation is the act of practicing substitutional thinking while personalisation is the act of practicing evolutionary thinking.
This moment calls for countries and companies the world over to reinvent themselves. This is only possible when we build systems that focus on inclusion and the power of individual capacity. It’s about mobilising dignity at scale.
“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”
The World Needs You
Right now you may have a sense that you are being called, more than ever before. Called to bring the full impact of your work into the world. Called to come out of hiding, to raise your voice above the crowd and become fully visible as the powerful leader that you truly are. Called to use your influence to create connection and community in a world longing for leadership. Right now, with our world reacting to unprecedented change, separation, and fear, this sense of urgency is likely growing inside of you, and the voice that says the time is now is louder than ever before.
The voice of doubt inside of you may tell you that right now is the most impossible time to step into your full influence, impact, and leadership. On the contrary, right now is the exact right time. Right now, the world NEEDS you to be at full potency. Your voice and your unique self is more necessary than ever before.
If you KNOW that you have the capacity for SO much more…
If you can feel in your bones that NOW is the time…
You are a Conscious Leader. It is time to take the final leap, to dramatically amp up your power and claim what has ALWAYS been yours.
“Courage doesn’t happen when you have all the answers. It happens when you are ready to face the questions you have been avoiding your whole life.”