Monday, 15 February 2021

Leadership in disruption


Lindy Nelson, Founder of the Agri Women’s Development Trust and 'Amplifying Us' podcast, talks to Ravensdown about what makes a good leader in disruptive times.

In a world of rapid change and disruption, visible and effective leadership provides both an anchor to stabilise conditions and a compass to provide direction.

During 2020 we witnessed examples of great and appalling leadership. The effects of which were immediate as we battled a global pandemic. The researcher and leadership practitioner in me gets excited by this stuff. I love knowing what works, by learning and applying the experiences and lessons on what helps us lead more effectively through these situations. Naturally, I’m always interested to know, how do women fare in these conditions? 

In our increasingly VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world we know all these circumstances are only going to increase. Leading in stable environments may not transfer into this new world. We will need to draw more heavily on new competences of leadership that may not come naturally to us but are ones we can all learn. So, what can we observe that is working currently? 

I was fascinated to observe that many of the countries that fared better during the initial covid epidemic were led by women. This posed both interesting questions and dilemmas for me, as I know the predictor of leadership success lies in personality – who we are is how we lead, not our gender. However, I also know gender provides a set of unique experiences that shape us and the only conclusion I can draw is those experiences helped world leaders such as Jacinda Ardern, Tsai Ing-Wen, Mette Frederiksen, Erna Solberg and Angela Merkel respond quickly and decisively to locking down their countries, providing initial success in preserving life compared to their male counterparts of countries with similar populations. 

Studies on attitudes to risk and uncertainty suggest women are more risk averse compared to men. So, what this pandemic appeared to demonstrate is that female leaders were prepared to take a risk on the economic health of their countries but not on human life. From what I know about human behaviour, this makes sense – when we fear for our lives, it’s our immediate survival that counts, our longer-term success is secondary. Do women get this more than men?

I’m not convinced we can say that gender dictated success, but we can observe and learn from the leadership characteristics we saw demonstrated by these women, which stack up against many human psychological models of leadership competencies. 

Covid-19 leadership skills 

  1. Interpersonal and communication skills
    Their ability to instinctively know how people were feeling and to predict and then deliver responses that met those needs was key to communicating with empathy, compassion and being able to behave predictably. These women provided stability, a plan and built trust, connecting not only with their adult populations but with the nation’s children as well. Whether this was Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen singing live whilst doing the dishes on TV, or Norway’s prime minister Erna Solberg’s compassionate leadership, especially with children, that “it was OK to be scared”, or Ms Ardern, who talked about the Easter Bunny and did a Facebook live session sitting in her sweat shirt after putting her own child to bed, these women understood the importance of our shared humanity and the struggles parents were experiencing.
  2. Build connection and a sense of belonging
    People need to feel you genuinely care about them; you have their best interests at heart and that this is a shared experience, i.e. we are all in this together. These leaders were able to communicate and demonstrate this right from their first media interview creating a vision and goal for their nation or as Jacinda Ardern put it, "team of five million".
  3. Build the critical factors for success and provide as much certainty as they can
    People need to know where they stand and have as much security as leaders are able to give them. One of our greatest fears is loss of power and control of resources and our ability to provide for our needs. We witnessed this through the prompt and decisive actions made with warmth and honesty by Tsai Ing-wen, Sint Maarten Jacobs, Merkel, Arden and Solberg, which exemplified effective communication. Not the whole plan but enough of the ‘what, why and how’ so some fear was removed and as much certainty as could be given was given. As humans we want to know our why – we fear unpredictability. Fighting a common enemy together by communicating a plan, progress to that plan and taking care of people’s immediate concerns are leadership behaviours that work.
  4. A more participative/or democratic style of leadership
    Rather than autocratic, participative leaders don’t have all the answers. Using modelling, science and doctors meant these leaders had expert knowledge on which to make decisions. Autocratic leaders control all the decisions and take very little input from others, making choices or decisions based on their own beliefs.Regardless of whether you believe gender has the advantage in conditions of change, we all have a choice on how we behave and respond. We know what works and what doesn’t and as another great crisis leader Winston Churchill once said “never let a good crisis go to waste”. Let’s learn from the leadership behaviours that created success in conditions of rapid change for those we lead.