At the Transition Manager Academy (TMA) we guide our participants through an exploration of what it is to be a leader of others for processes of significant transitional change in our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. Central to my teaching for TMA is a state of curiosity which is key to the learning and adaptability needed to thrive during times of rapid change. Time spent learning, and learning how to learn, is usually time well spent. And, currently, many of us have plenty of time!

The Covid-19 pandemic is classic VUCA and the enforced cessation of life as normal is an opportunity for curiosity – to assess the behaviours of leaders across national, cultural and political boundaries.

So, how we can form our views on the lessons to be learned whilst we are in the middle of the crisis, to what extent we can bring a degree of objectivity to those lessons, and how can make sense of what we learn?

Forming our views, understanding our biases

How we see the world is shaped by our sense of who we are and by our values – those things we hold to be important – and our beliefs – those things we ‘know’ to be true.

How you are as a leader stems from your personal characteristics and attributes, and while these cannot be taught – you are who you are – through a coaching approach, individuals can learn self-awareness and can recognise that there are always choices available for how we present ourselves to the world so that it may be better to say that you are who you choose to be.

The choices we make about how we are affect our ability to observe and learn from the actions of others. The way in which I choose to guide future leaders is shaped by fundamental values and beliefs that empower me, but also have the potential to blind me to lessons that lie outside my map of the world. They affect my capability to draw objective conclusions from what I observe.

Three beliefs that are particularly important are:

  • It is not VUCA that causes us problems as leaders, it is our relationship with VUCA – if we embrace VUCA and the possibilities that come with that we create opportunities;
  • Effective leadership is simply Doing the Right Things and Doing them Right – easy to say but harder to do;
  • Honesty and integrity above all else – and accepting the power of vulnerability – it is ok to make mistakes in a VUCA world – what makes the difference is owning and learning from tchem.

How my beliefs shape my understanding

These beliefs are embodied in models that are included within our training. The first is captured by the models presented in Eddie Obeng’s book, All Change, The Project Leader’s Secret Handbook in which he argues that, when we acknowledge the nature of the uncertainty, we can deal with it. How well do you know what needs to be done? How well do you know how to do it? Depending on the answers you may find yourself, in an ideal world, Painting by Numbers or, more likely, on a Quest, Making a Movie or Lost in the Fog. And your focus as a leader will be different depending which of these apply.

The second belief is illustrated by a model that comes from the Harvard Business Review article, Leadership Lessons from the Chilean Mine Rescue. This article looks at the sometimes conflicting demands of efficient execution and the ability to learn quickly and adapt, both of which are clearly relevant at this time. These demands require leaders to be able to alternate between directing action and enabling innovation – which requires different skill sets and behaviours from a leader.

And finally, we come to models that address values and beliefs. I was tempted to include Authentic Leadership here, however, if the definition of Authenticity is behaving openly and transparently in accordance with your values and beliefs then this is not necessarily a good thing. One might argue that certain leaders in the pandemic arena are highly authentic to their personal values but that the outcomes are not necessarily for the better. So, this is more about my personal values of honesty, transparency and integrity.

So I ask:

  • How well do leaders acknowledge the inherent uncertainty of the pandemic and respond appropriately to that uncertainty?
  • How well do they and their teams manage the conflicting requirement for directing action and enabling innovation?
  • How well do they demonstrate honesty and integrity – do they treat the public they serve as responsible adults, is relevant information made available, are mistakes acknowledged, owned and used as opportunities for learning?

What I notice

So, what do I observe, both here in the UK where I live, and globally via my chosen news sources (notice the inherent bias that also comes with that choice!)

The only available measures of ‘success’ at this time are the measures of infection rates and related deaths published by John Hopkins University. These show that there are significant variations in the speed with which different countries responded to the threat and the approaches that they used to first contain the spread and then to control the rate of increase in an attempt to ensure that health services were not overwhelmed.

Some leaders recognised the scale of the threat and took rapid and significant social and economic measures to prepare for what was to come. And their actions were a mixture of Making Movies – e.g. use our knowledge of how to develop vaccines to find what will be our ultimate long term solution; Quests – we know that testing, tracking and tracing will be key to removing some of the social constraints that are currently in place, find a way to make that possible; and negotiating the Fog – move step by step and above all communicate with all around you.

Some leaders balance other priorities over health – economic or political – and have not imposed the measures that have had some success in containment elsewhere.

Some leaders, and I believe this is what happened in the UK, initially misunderstood the threat and tried to treat this as a painting by numbers exercise – believing that the nature of the virus would be similar to that of flu viruses for which there are known measures. By the time the understanding changed the virus had had some weeks to progress. In the UK also, the scientific advice available to the leaders was in part shaped by their beliefs in what would be the nature of the response leading to a prioritisation of behavioural science over epidemiology with consequences for decision making.

What I also observe is differences in the openness and the nature of communications from leaders. One of the lessons from the Chilean Mine Rescue was the importance of the leader’s ability to present a realistic assessment of the challenge whilst also engendering a spirit of hope to energise action. And a willingness to openly recognise that in VUCA situations there will be some false starts and some mistakes made.

Those leaders who have embraced these principles tend to have built a perception of competence and a commitment to their actions that is not present for others. For example, Jacinda Ardern and, from the world of sport, Adam Silver, instinctively took actions that are seen to be effective.

“What Ardern and Silver got right in March, before the situation was clear to much of the public, reveals a great deal about what good leadership looks like during this pandemic. Understanding what’s required of leaders in this moment starts with appreciation for the type of problem this pandemic presented in its initial phases. When warning signs are fuzzy and potential harm could be large, leaders confront what management scholars call an ambiguous threat. Given the human desire to hope a threat is small, we are drawn to act as if that is factually the case.”

What Good Leadership Looks Like During This Pandemic? – Harvard Business Review

So what?

I hope that you can see that there are lessons to be learned and that taking the time to reflect on what we read will not only inform us as future leaders but may also help us to make sense of an increasingly strange world. I also hope that you may understand that the things you choose to notice and the conclusions you draw will be shaped in part by what you already believe to be true and that you will take steps – as will I – to try to broaden your learning and to challenge your thinking – to try to read new maps of the world.