Forged in a pandemic - lessons in leadership from my re-arranged bookshelf

Carat's own "s(h)elf-help" Guru and CCO, Matthew Landeman has drawn inspiration from his newly re-arranged home-office literature, to identify three key areas, that as leaders we should be thinking about to help guide our colleagues and clients through the upcoming months.

When the situation around Coronavirus first started to escalate, I have to admit there were a fair few holiday paperbacks visible just as the number of Microsoft Teams video calls taking place in front of my bookshelf started to peak.

Then, people started noticing them and commenting, so I admit I moved them out of the way and promoted some of the books I read at University. Now I think about it,  there is something appropriate about the work of Franz Kafka featuring more significantly in my video conference calls at the time of a state-imposed lockdown.

At the very top of my bookshelf are some books that I have read over the years on leadership all of which made me think: during an unprecedented context like the one we are in, where should we go for advice? As leaders what things should we be trying to do that will help those we work with best navigate the upcoming months?

So - inspired by my bookshelf - I came up with three non-exhaustive thoughts that I wanted to share.

Keep the long game in mind, as this too shall pass

Nearly every call at the moment is, understandably, about how to manage things in the heat of the furnace. As a result, our collective decision making is showing a strong bias to mitigate the here and now, and there is nothing wrong with this as part of an overall plan.

However, there is a bubbling narrative happening around what things will be like when it is over. Will attitudes to work change? Will consumer demands have shifted? Will the values that society holds dear have moved on profoundly? Very possibly, but we don’t know, so a knee-jerk reaction or interpretation may not always be the right thing.

The idea of keeping an eye on the long game may in fact counter-intuitively mean that the right action might be to not react as materially as you feel you might need to and to make sure that a fight or flight response doesn't over-rule your rational judgement.

Harvard Professor Nancy Koehn in her book, Forged in a Crisis, looked at a series of leaders who dealt with long term crises - like the one we perhaps face now - and one of the key successful behaviours she observed was a cool deliberateness and a willingness to be patient even under pressure.

So, consider the future and do what can be reasonably done to get yourself and clients set up for it. If you can’t act fully now, you can plan. Make use of the time you now have at home to re-appraise strategy so that the moment we get out of this you are out of the blocks quicker than the competition.

Take a moment to consider what actions need to be taken tactically, decisively, and without compromise, and which actions may be better viewed strategically due to the long-term impact they could make.

Team empowerment can make a real difference when facing the unknown

Dan Cable from London Business School is one of the top organisational psychologists in the world.

His Book, Alive at Work, makes a great argument that we all have the inherent capability to work around problems and innovate in something called the Seeker System. Cable suggests that to get the very best out of the people you should work hard to unleash this Seeker System at scale. He outlines how this approach helps organisations and teams to process, navigate and solve for both change and the unknown in a much more effective way than the other primary programming we have, the Fear System.

All of this needs to be done in a responsible framework but the more freedom you can give people within that framework the more innovative they will be, the braver they will be, and the more passionate and driven they will be to find new solutions.

Right now, no-one has answers to all of the questions that are out there - there are fewer relevant data points or experiences to draw on. However, having a culture where people are not waiting in line to be told what to do but are hungrily experimenting and trying to work those answers out can make a real difference.

Try it yourself by saying yes to those around you as much as you can and see what happens. At a time when it might be tempting to over-control the situation, let the Seeker System flourish by encouraging colleagues and clients to be more open to the ideas and inputs of those around them, irrespective of hierarchy or experience.

Now is the right time to focus on what trust really means

Right now, all the concern, the pressure and the change we are experiencing is being felt universally by colleagues, clients, families, and friends.

It’s not an industry thing, it’s a systemic challenge for society.

So, perhaps it is time to really focus on the word trust.

Trust is a word that we have co-opted for all sorts of things in advertising but which ultimately means that the way that we can support each other is by demonstrating empathy, authenticity, understanding and human connection. This then needs to be supported by action that shows we have listened and want to help.

David Maister’s classic, Trusted Advisor, unpacks what trust means into a neat equation where the role of Credibility (knowing your stuff), Reliability (doing what you say), Intimacy (ensuring that those we deal with feel safe and secure sharing) and Self-Orientation (doing things for the right reasons, which are to help others not yourself) play a huge part.

Maister’s book is written from a client/consultant perspective but surely now more than ever these things matter? For leaders, for businesses and for brands.

At a personal level, how can we look to demonstrate these behaviours when those around us need them most? Who in your client or partner circle should you be video calling and seeing how you can help? Who in your team or your personal life needs someone to meaningfully check-in on how they are doing?

People will remember you leaning in right now and may also remember if you don’t, so try to make this a time when you show more than ever that people can place their trust in you as a partner, colleague or friend.

So, those are three thoughts I am drawing some inspiration from right now from my bunker in South London - I would love to hear if you have more to add, and its fine to take them from one of the paperbacks you bought for the Easter holiday you were due to go on next week....

Take care out there all.

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