The role of leadership in a difficult time

The role of leadership in a difficult time
Published: 20 March 2020

With the fallout from the coronavirus unknown, right now, there will be many individuals feeling anxious about their career, their family and their future. The economic repercussions of this will be felt globally, affecting every company, from small businesses through to global corporations. It will be some time before even the analysts figure out the ramifications. Yet, in this uncertainty, we all have an opportunity to pull together, and in doing so make a difference to society by choosing to value something other than profit. We can choose to value the greater good.

In late 2019, the American Roundtable of businesses released a letter which encouraged organisations to value more than shareholder return and encouraged them to commit to delivering a greater return to their communities (employees, customers, partners, suppliers and wider society). This undercurrent is growing and businesses like LEGO, Octopus Energy, Patagonia, Riverford Organic Farmers and the growing B Corp movement use their profits to achieve their principles.

There will be no doubt some individuals reading this who will think that I’m naïve to suggest that, in a time as critical as this, focusing on anything other than profit is superfluous or even superficial. I would argue against that; at a time as critical as this, our commitment to each other is non-negotiable, and this is where corporations can step into the breach and help where governments can’t. In the UK we are seeing our engineering giants JCB, Dyson et al. trying to solve the challenge of shortages of ventilators. In France, LVMH has switched from producing perfume to hand sanitiser. China’s retail giant Alibaba is providing free testing kits, masks and protective suits across Africa and, in the US, Walgreens and CVS are waiving delivery fees for prescriptions.

Whilst many businesses will be battling for survival over the coming months, it is clear that present circumstances require exceptional leadership. Do not dismay, we are already seeing examples of it everywhere – from Willie Walsh delaying his retirement to provide IAG with consistent leadership, to Professor Chris Whitty clearly articulating ever-changing information to a country seeking positive affirmation.

Resilience has increasingly been sought by organisations and the frequently touted ‘VUCA’ acronym (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) is more important than ever. In constantly changing circumstances, those who can adapt and inspire their employees to follow them will emerge from this time different, but undoubtedly stronger.

It’s in our most difficult moments that we can do remarkable things. We’ll find ways to do things differently, to innovate and, in some instances, to pivot and reinvent. Let’s use coronavirus as a turning point to redefine what exceptional companies and leaders do.

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