Survive The Unexpected
Step 6: Leading from AHEAD
This is the most commonly accepted leadership posture: leaders in front of their troops. The decision-maker who, in the midst of confusion, identifies the right option; the ones who risk fire and emerge victorious along with their (surviving) troops, exhausted but happy. But let’s look beyond this fanciful image to reflect on what it means to be “in front” and the situations that require this posture. The first thing that comes to mind is Courage.
In his Laches, Plato staged Socrates against two generals, Nicias and Laches, and their exchange revolved around finding a satisfactory definition of courage. The dialogue does not lead to anything very conclusive, which tends to prove that on a philosophical level, courage is not an easy concept to define. It may well be that we all agree on the importance of courage without even having a common definition of it…
But in a corporate context, it is easier for us (at least we think it is) to identify those with courage. They are usually the ones who make the difficult decisions (those with the highest level of political, technical, emotional, or physical risk) and who, by committing and then taking risks, assume full ownership of the consequences. A high-ranking army general with whom I was discussing courage said to me one day: “True courage is to go and tell a young widow the bad news”.
Courageous leaders oppose and fight against decisions or options they believe are wrong or dangerous even when everyone else thinks the opposite. It isn’t easy to oppose one’s hierarchy or the overall feeling of a group, even in organizations that promote risk-taking.
Courageous leaders recognize failure for what it is and learn from it. They share what they’ve learned and bounce back.
But above all, courageous leaders measure risk thereby avoiding both cowardice and recklessness. There is always a dose of uncertainty, of course, and success is never guaranteed. When Napoleon was offered the promotion of a general, his first question was “Is he that guy lucky? ». But making the right difficult decision is not about luck. The only way to anticipate the consequences of a difficult decision is by developing the most rational possible analysis of the situation. That is to say, by exercising discernment.
Think about what it’s like driving through thick fog. We know danger lies ahead and we sometimes need time to “discern” what it is. A truck? A car? A tractor? Are we going at the right speed for whatever it is?
That’s what it’s like for many of today’s leaders: they’re driving in thick fog and the road is in poor condition. And they will be for a while, after the health crisis has decreased. Still, some questions will remain. What will be the digital future of my business? How will climate change affect it? What will the future generations’ expectations in my company? Are my people and team aware of all this? etc.
To discern is to see more clearly in order to choose. It is the ability to arbitrate depending on how we assess reality and how we see it evolving. We can trust our experience, but only up to a point because the world we’re coming from will very quickly disappear.
When we do not like the reality we see, we can either accept it for what it is, or consider that what we’re seeing is wrong. I remember, a long time ago, a serious study showed that McDonald’s had no future in France, for excellent cultural reasons: French gastronomy. People who built their strategy around that study lacked discernment.
The capacity for discernment in an era of profound and accelerated change is certainly one of the most crucial skills managers need to develop. It will allow them to provide greater clarity in a complex and confusing world where, whatever happens, they still have to decide, act and adapt. Finally, it makes it easier to evaluate the risks at stake and benefit from individual courage.
Discernment provides clarity in goal definition and enables coherent individual and collective action.
One might object that in a situation as confusing as today’s, setting objectives is not simple, and in any case, they need to be constantly reconsidered in order to constantly adapt to change. That’s true. But objectives can be fluctuating and clear at the same time. Why are companies looking for agility so much if because they need to quickly adapt their strategies, objectives and actions? Who did expect 2020 to be what it is?
But leaders also need to remind people of what isn’t changing, i.e. the convictions and principles (sometimes referred to as values) that underlie the actions and practices of the company and that underlie the company’s culture and success. Even if some of these convictions appear less relevant in view of changes in the environment, many remain valid and can be used to strengthen internal consistency and solidarity. “Principles of action” or “values” do not replace clear objectives, but they do guarantee unity in action.
Developing discernment, clarity and courage is imperative. For some, these qualities are innate. Others develop them in the course of their career and personal experience. But they are not sufficient and do not respond to all situations.
In STEP 7: We’ll see what it means to lead rom aside, when a different kind of courage is required.
Have a look at Step 1 Leadership definition
Have a look at Step 2 The world as it goes
Have a look at Step 3 Facing dilemmas
Have a look at Step 4 Leader tomorrow
Have a look at Step 5 Leading from above