Think of all the new things we’ve adopted lately: many of us (lucky enough to have kept our jobs) have learned to work from home; most of us have become proficient at social distancing; a talented few have concocted ways to sew face masks.
One unexpected development is the rate at which we have all become dedicated students of leadership.
We are seeing the importance of leadership vividly demonstrated for us on a daily basis, with the performance of our local and global leaders scrutinised and hotly debated.
So, what are we learning about leadership?
1. Humility versus Hubris
Icarus was the person in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun. In the story, Icarus’ parent nurtures ambitions and fashions wings that take the golden child ever higher until, having gone too far, the sun melts the waxen wings and Icarus plummets fatally back to earth.
Who does that remind you of?
No, let’s not go there but dwell, instead, on the qualities that might have kept Icarus at a suitable elevation.
Humility is my first watch word. It seems abundantly clear that the leaders who have performed well in this crisis are the ones who have not hesitated to take expert advice. Trying to spin that advice in the service of anything other than keeping a community safe has not worked well. A worthwhile leader does not need to put their handprints on the expertise of others – they need to humbly let their decisions and actions be informed by the advice of people who know more.
Hubris is my second watch word, the very antithesis of humility. It was hubris that took Icarus too close to the sun – the inflated self-regard that convinced the golden child there should be no limits to success. Hubris is blinding and dangerous and, all too commonly, fed by the flattery and sycophancy of a Leader’s entourage and underlings (and, sometimes, family)…
2. How Leaders Communicate
I think we all have fresh opinions on this one. It seems to me critical that Leaders step up – they need to be seen and they need to be heard. Personally, I’ve never paid more attention to – and sought out more assiduously – the announcements made by people I want to help guide me through pandemic conditions and an uncertain future.
What have the good leaders been doing?
They have anticipated the serious concerns of the people they lead and instituted regular forums for communicating everything that can be shared. They have been transparent about what they know and also what they cannot know at any given stage. They have kept their messages as clear as possible and repeated them often.
Importantly, they have been positive but not vacuous. Good leaders have delivered harsh truths without sugar coating but they have also been both reassuring and encouraging about achievable goals. And, as mentioned, they have deferred to experts.
Think about your leaders at work – perhaps you are one. For your workplace, there are some great examples out there on which to model ways to communicate effectively about complex current scenarios.
3. Blame vs Accountability
The stakes are very high at the moment: lives and livelihoods are in the balance.
Where I work, we talk about, and operate in, a ‘no-blame-culture’. When I make a mistake, I have no fear of punishment or retribution – everyone’s focus is on next steps and improvements.
But is no blame a viable option across society during a dangerous pandemic? Probably not, I’m afraid. Some behaviours need to be urgently curtailed and, for some, only the threat of punishment or infamy will curb habitual impulses.
Disturbingly, however, we seem to have flipped over into all blame culture a few times recently.
How does a good leader negotiate this?
When things go wrong, the best leaders accept accountability for decisions that have been made but do not seek to apportion blame. They acknowledge that they are not perfect, they investigate what has happened, and learn from it.
The best leaders also show genuine care and convince us that they understand the degrees of awfulness being faced. This just can’t be faked.
4. Watch them Burn (out)
There is a fascination in watching how leaders around the world are performing at the moment. Under our unwavering scrutiny, they have shown us an amazing mix of the inspired, the efficient, the ludicrous and the possibly criminal.
In workplaces across Australia, there are local leaders who have also had to take on unanticipated responsibilities occasioned by the pandemic. They too are subject to our scrutiny and judgement.
Watching Icarus fail features in a poem by W.H. Auden (who also wrote the ‘stop all the clocks’ poem in the film, Four Weddings and a Funeral). The poet is looking at a painting in the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels of Icarus falling away from the sun and plunging into the sea, dead:
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
That’s cold reality. Leadership provides a spectacle and a function we all have an interest in, never more so than in a time of crisis. But fail and you’re on your own, sinking unremarkably into lonely oblivion.
My last watch word is Kindness. Be kind to yourself while all this is going on, but try also to be kind about the people leading us (or at least most of them!).
I am conscious that the laser scrutiny I am applying to the people in charge can burn hot, maybe contributing to a heat that melts wax.
Despite occasionally overheated emotions, I want the people leading my communities to succeed. I want them to be able to recover from mistakes and keep going. I want them not to be destroyed by their leadership roles, or by the harsh scrutiny of critics.
I want them to spend time each day with the people and things they love – unburdened and recharging – so they can take up the load again tomorrow and lead us with increasing effectiveness through the current mess.
About Rose Scott
She also managers of Worklogic’s Integrity Line service and ensures that people making a workplace complaint are given a calm and secure reception.
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