Throughout history, crises have been the breeding ground for individuals we later describe as great leaders. If the times make the leader, in many instances, those leaders emerge from unlikely places.
And while we celebrate individuals such as Lincoln and Churchill, great leaders also appear on smaller stages. From today’s major battlefield, the front lines of health care delivery, individuals who were just a few months ago doing their jobs are now finding themselves thrust into leadership roles as they juggle emergencies and make life-or-death decisions.
The area of our world where we spend the most money and time “developing” leaders is the one I am the most disappointed in at this point. While we celebrate celebrity CEOs who preside over innovations and individuals who navigate the numbers with consistency, I argue we’ve been developing and valuing the wrong qualities in our organization’s leaders.
While numbers and innovations are essential, organizational resilience is more important. It’s time to rethink what great leadership looks like in our firms and institutions and begin to develop and celebrate those who lead for resilience.
It’s time to break the pattern
Having lived and led long enough to see many cycles, it’s easy to spot the repeating pattern in our world of business. We guide our organizations in pursuit of what are frequently contrived numbers that satisfy someone’s need to show they are being aggressive and doing a great job leading.
And then to hit those numbers, many take shortcuts and start to make riskier and riskier bets that increase risk. Just as this loss of discipline hits critical mass, something happens, and we run into the brick wall at full speed. The dot-com boom and bust and the 2007-08 financial crisis are cases in point.
Study history, and you’ll see similar circumstances where the rise of threats goes unheeded as leaders fiddle over politics and position while the first sparks of fire begin to catch. The lead-up to both world wars offers painful reminders of how blind leaders are to impending disasters and the rise of evil.
While the rear-view mirror of history gives some clarity, it’s hard to believe at the time that Churchill and Britain were left alone — for far too long — to face down the biggest threat to freedom the world had seen. The jury of history will eventually weigh in on how effective or ineffective global leaders were at dealing with this contemporary threat.
What’s too often missing from business is leading for resilience
I define leading for resilience as making the strategic, structural, operational, talent and development decisions that will enable organizations to survive a shock and sustain their mission. It’s a philosophy I’ve rarely encountered in almost four decades of working and leading — in large part because this philosophy demands a long-term view and discipline in a decidedly short-term world.
At first glance, it might be easy to confuse the commitment to resilience with a commitment to extremely conservative decision-making. I don’t see those as equivalent at any level.
Leading and structuring for resilience is quite the opposite. To lead for resilience, an organization has to push decision-making downstream and enable rapid agility and adaptation without excessive bureaucratic oversight. Top leaders set direction (commander’s intent), provide parameters, and then work like mad to ensure their people are building resilient supply chains, diversifying business models, and remaining focused on the core values.
Leading for resilience is a deliberate commitment to examining the entire business and strategy and finding ways to diversify the risk ahead of the next major calamity. It’s a mindset to think of everything, continually model different scenarios and develop processes, approaches and talent dedicated to serving the mission and surviving the shocks.
Amazon may be the most resilient business or organization on the planet right now, and in large part, the behaviors needed for resilience are embedded in its leadership principles. To Jeff Bezos’ credit, those principles are visible, vibrant and enforced.
Leading for resilience means rethinking everything
If you lead with the assumption that something, somewhere and at some time, will jump out and attack, you naturally prepare to defend yourself. This preparation doesn’t distract you from moving forward, but it does prove critical when you need to protect yourself.
If your entire supply chain is dependent upon the ongoing support of unfriendly or at least unaligned actors and subject to pendulum swings in the political environment, you diversify the supply chain risk. By the same token, minimizing business model risk by diversifying channels is essential. Moving forward, expect every restaurant and foodservice operator that is interested in surviving and thriving to develop robust online and takeout systems, as well as internal processes.
I’ve lost interest or empathy for the old-line retailers of my childhood now teetering on the brink of the abyss. They’ve had more than two decades to reset for resilience and diversify their business models, develop new channels, embrace technology and make themselves relevant to consumers. A few have pulled this off and merit kudos. The rest will likely soon join the growing heap of old brands lost to memory.
Sadly, parents, families and faculty everywhere are living through a classic case of how our educational institutions failed to lead and plan for resilience. The need for education will only grow; however, the methods must and will change, as resilience is now not an option.
No sector and no institution is safe, and sadly, most aren’t set up for resilience.
Shifting to building leaders who focus on resilience
There’s a lot in play for why we lead our organizations the way we do. In many cultures, an extremely short-term focus coupled with reward systems that promote behaviors that reduce resilience is the culprit. Additionally, how we develop our managers and leaders bears some of the blame, as well.
There are few topics more talked or written about than leadership, yet, this theme of resilience is only occasionally implied. Perhaps it’s time to spend a lot less time talking and writing about building cultures of “nice” and focus on building cultures where tough-minded people can have robust discussions and make tough decisions quickly.
Yes, that’s a lot of tough, but it’s needed.
Resilient cultures will be much about getting outside of their own four walls, searching for the trigger events — the converging forces that will have unintended downstream consequences — and proposing ways to seize opportunities and mitigate risks.
The leaders in these cultures will live, eat, breathe and sleep a few key issues, including how can we learn, decide and adapt faster, and how we can diversify our approaches to risk in the face of almost any scenario?
To do this, and to begin building the right kind of leaders, we will need to change our view on what defines great leadership. When the crisis hits, we all need Churchill. For the rest of the time, I want someone singularly focused on setting us up to be ready for that moment when something unexpected lashes out at us.
The bottom line for now
Leading for resilience is the antithesis of hunkering down and operating conservatively. Instead, it’s about pushing out boldly, knowing that something somewhere is going to kick you in the teeth, and you need to be ready before it happens. I once heard from a wise person: By the time you’re in the middle of the mess, it’s too late to prepare.
Art Petty is an executive and emerging leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.