First of all I wanted to thank all of those that contacted me to congratulate me or discuss points raised in my last Blog Post article on Family Businesses. I appreciate this feedback immensely.
Today I wanted to highlight what I believe is a very topical issue – Practical Leadership. As you all know, leaders today face great uncertainty, imperfect information, multiple unknowns and yet the need to identify responses quickly. Responding in such an environment requires a practical or what is also technically know as adaptive leadership, which is based on the following:-
- Anticipation of likely future needs, trends and options.
- Articulation of these needs to build collective understanding and support for action.
- Adaptation so that there is continuous learning and the adjustment of responses as necessary.
- Accountability, including maximum transparency in decision making processes and openness to challenges and feedback
All of the above are pivotal in the most successful responses to the pandemic. Take the pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca and the work they are doing with Oxford University to develop the much needed COVID-19 vaccine. Thanks to their large Chinese operations, they learned about the virus early, and started working to anticipate future needs and issues, while also navigating the considerable uncertainties and unknowns. They articulated these needs to a wide range of internal and external stakeholders to garner commitment and support, and adapted a range of new business models and partnerships to effectively meet the most urgent Covid-19 needs — most notably vaccine development, but also testing and screening methods, health facility development, and the use of AI to support diagnostics and case management. Perhaps most notably, the firm has established an inclusive approach to accountability, with a commitment to support the global Covid-19 response “as economically and as equitably” as possible — including numerous agreements for the large-scale production and distribution of any successful vaccine at zero profit during the period of pandemic.
Having said so such practical and adaptive leadership needs to be guided by certain foundation principles to guide this kind of practical or adaptive leadership. These principles are:
- Ensure evidence-based learning and adaptation
Adaptive leadership means organisations need to constantly assess their actions, recognising that they will have to continuously iterate and adapt their interventions as they learn more about the outcomes of decisions. This requires clear processes for determining the best options for action; collecting, interpreting and acting on evidence, including defining a set of key measures for determining success or failure; ensuring ongoing collection of operationally relevant data; and setting out a clear process for how changes in data and trends will trigger changes in action.
- Stress-test underlying assumptions and beliefs
Challenge the assumptions and hypotheses which normally guide you to a robust and rigorous reflection and examination, including through the simulation of different possible future scenarios (a continous scenario planning exercise). One of the most systematic and rigorous approaches to Covid-19 scenario planning has been developed by Boston Consulting Group.
- Streamline deliberative decision making
A major challenge faced by leaders is that the situation on Covid-19 is changing all the time. Where decision makers feel threatened, they are much more likely to revert to risk-averse and siloed responses to ensure a degree of safety that results from narrowly defined targets. Decision makers at different levels therefore need to be clear about what they are basing their assumptions and hypotheses on. They need to explain what is being done and why, and how a decision was made, so that if errors are identified, trust can still be maintained in the process.
- Strengthen transparency, inclusion, and accountability
People around the world have been asked to make major behaviour changes. Thus there is the need to examine how earlier decisions were made, bearing in mind the information available at the time. The best adaptive leaders have recognised mistakes are likely to be made and actively used them to identify shared learning opportunities.
- Mobilise collective action
As a business leader you need to realise that now more than ever any effective response needs to build on collaboration across various stakeholders. Adaptive leadership has a crucial role to play in helping to identify shared alignment of objectives and scope for collective action across different silos and stakeholders.
What we do in this crisis response will have repercussions on our businesses. These above guiding principles of adaptive leadership are not just vital to guide our immediate responses; they will also be vital for shaping longer-term recovery and resilience plans for our businesses. Our future may be uncertain, but this uncertainty is at the very heart of human creativity.