Leadership is going to need to be ‘reset’. What many leaders are discovering through this Covid-19 crisis is that they don’t have the organisation they thought they had – and it isn’t so much about the people, but rather about the systems, processes and structures within their organisation. The flow of information and the ability to make decisions are been revealed for what they are and there can be no hiding. We are discovering afresh, Warren Buffets’ astute observation that “When the tide goes out you see who has been swimming naked”.

The disruption has unsparingly revealed that we (our organisation) has not been built for a time such as this; we are discovering just how ill-equipped we are to deal with the havoc wrought by this global pandemic. We have been found out; in a blink, our best-intended plans, strategies and management practices have been rendered redundant. Most, if not all, will forever be consigned to the trash heap as we learn to build back better from the ashes of this pandemic.

Our leadership focus, our attention to what we really believe and practice; the alignment of the why, what and how when it comes to leadership, we are now realising is largely unfit. This is gut-wrenching given our sincere efforts and considerable investment in developing leaders and building the kind of organisation that we had hoped would be ‘future-fit’ -regardless of whatever scenario was to play out.

We are asking how our best efforts to be prepared could have been so misplaced? We are wondering what to do next.

We knew something ‘like this’ could happen – who by now hasn’t seen multiple YouTube clips predicting a global pandemic? And so, if the answer to the question, ‘could we have foreseen this?’ is an emphatic “yes” – the next obvious question is, ‘then why are our organisations so ill-equipped to deal with this shifting reality?

The answer, in a word, is that we were inattentive.

We simply weren’t paying attention when being told that we (our organisation) needed to be adaptive. We weren’t listening when what being adaptive means was being explained. We thought that because we had survived for so long, or because we have such deep pockets and a plethora of best practices – we thought we had what it takes to be adaptive. We thought that our structures, policies and business intelligence would see us through, and now we know that they don’t and won’t. Maybe now we are willing to listen.

I am not surprised by all this and here is why.

It is not that we specifically envisaged a global pandemic but what we in TomorrowToday did know, is that context does change and can do so suddenly and unexpectedly. Cue, global pandemic! For a long time, we have been highlighting this critical point and teaching about disruptive change, about ‘expecting the unexpected’ – or knowing ‘what to do when you don’t know what to do’ (this being the very description of an ‘adaptive challenge’) – all of which points to adaptive leadership. We have been big fans of Heifetz’s ‘Adaptive Leadership’ model and have been bold in declaring it the very best leadership framework for a complex and ever-changing world. We have been shouting this from the rooftops – well at conferences and in leadership programme classrooms, for a considerable time. A lot of leaders have nodded approvingly and politely engaged with the concepts, but too little was done to take onboard the message and challenges of what it means to truly be an adaptive organisation…and now circumstances have now exposed this short-sightedness. Hindsight is a wonderful thing!

So, a fair question is, ‘but how did you know that organisations / leaders were poorly equipped to cope with this disruption – or at least weren’t taking onboard the message to be adaptive?’

In the multiple leadership development programmes in which we have taught, impressive programmes that span sectors and geographies and designed by some of the finest leadership institutions and business schools, we have (when given opportunity) created adaptive challenges for the participants. Remember, an adaptive challenge is, ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’. As we have done so, we have seen the reactions of senior leaders to these unexpected scenarios and the clear and obvious realisation has been how ill-prepared and ready we are for such challenges.

Let me provide an example of one such adaptive challenge that has, more than most, shown this to be the case. It is what we call the ‘Silence Class’. It involves whoever is the teacher / facilitator sitting down (after a very intentional set-up) and basically not saying another word – sometimes for up to four hours! The reactions and response of the participants gives a very clear indication as to their (and by default, the organisation’s) readiness to respond to an adaptive challenge. In the safety of the classroom this ‘experiment’ provides profound insights as to the difficulty of meaningfully engaging in an adaptive challenge. I have encountered extreme behaviour from the absurd to the ridiculous in response to the unexpected situation created by my silence and unresponsive presence. At a later point, layering the theory of adaptive leadership over the disequilibrium (to put it kindly!) created by the silence class, then becomes easy. One has a very receptive and engaged audience with recourse to a mass of tangible evidence of personal and collective responses that have invariably starkly revealed the massive shortcomings.

This inability to deal well with the silence class has far outweighed groups that have coped well. In my experience of doing the silence class (over 50 times globally), only around 5% of the groups engaged coped well with what was thrown at them. This overwhelming inability to cope with the unexpected is revealing of the general ‘state of play’ within the majority of most large corporations.

Another tell-tale indicator of our unpreparedness’s to cope with unexpected disruptive change is the standard form that governs how leadership development interventions are designed and delivered. Here, we the educators are to blame. Most of the leadership development programmes in which we participate are too safe, too predictable, too focused on client wants (rather than needs) and are shaped and governed by the wrong metrics. But all of this has become a successful business model with real money to be spent and made. The very thing that is often told to the clients concerning the need to be willing to ‘change their business model’ has been ignored by those who deliver the message. Again, for some considerable time we in TomorrowToday have been (cautiously I might add!) shouting this message. I say ‘cautiously’ because we are very invested in the business school model. So, when invited to be part of a programme that is to help participants understand what it takes to ‘lead in a changing world’ I will unhesitatingly suggest the silence class. More often than not, on hearing about the certain disruption and chaos that will certainly ensue, the client and / or programme manager from the business school, will shy away from the opportunity. It is always frustrating as I know the Silence Class will undoubtedly deliver profound insights (one participant described it as ‘lifechanging’ and backed that assessment up with a powerful personal story as to why). The silence class also startlingly reveals the organisation’s readiness for adaptability; it reveals as much about the organisation’s culture as it does about those in the room.

So, after years of ‘case material’ gathered through the silence class, witnessing some of the corporate response to the pandemic, is sadly no surprise.

The good news, however, is that there is something we can do about it and now, perhaps for the first time in many decades, there is a ‘ready-ear’ to hear the message about the need for adaptability and what it will take to build adaptive intelligence both personally and corporately. Of course, we will need to be patient as getting back in the classroom will not happen anytime soon but, it will happen; and when it does, educators will need to embrace adaptive leadership in a manner that makes sense and points us in the right direction as the next major disruption is not a case of ‘if’ but rather, ‘when?’.

Next time we must be ready…and our readiness then will be shaped by what we do now! Sounds a bit like ‘Groundhog Day’ but maybe this time, we will be a little more attentive.

Same Planet, Different World - What it means to live and lead in a changed world: The implications for leadership.

Keith Coats believes that there will need to be a fundamental ‘leadership reset’ as a result of Covid-19. What the global pandemic has exposed is the global complexity that we always knew existed, but perhaps underestimated as we went about building our organisations and developing our leaders. In a word, we will need to fully understand, appreciate and embody adaptability – if we are to build back better and be ready for whatever comes next. Find out more about our team’s latest framework that we’ve developed to help our clients.

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