To Survive The Unexpected
Over the past five years, ICM associates has been working on organizational resilience around a simple idea: survive the unexpected. We saw this unexpected in a few trends: the digital revolution, the transformation of industrial sectors, an increasingly strong globalization, the ecological issues, but we never imagined that the world would have to face the COVID-19 crisis which today is radically shaking it up. Our intuition became reality. The 2020 crisis will at the same time accelerate change and reinforce the three basic trends we have experienced over the ten past years.
There is no doubt that the coming years will be years of reconstruction and adaptation to an uncertain environment. The virtues of leadership will play a considerable role in this. It is therefore time for us to share the results of our research with you and, of course, to accompany our clients in this unique moment of truth.
We will do this by making our conclusions and the methodologies derived from them available online, step by step.
Step 1: what we mean by leadership
From Plutarch to McGregor or Blanchard, from Carlyle to Machiavelli, the definition of leadership has fluctuated and evolved. From “Illustrious Men” to “Leadership Traits”, from “Contingency” to “Situational”, the authors and researchers have sought to clarify what makes a good leader. Much has been written about what is expected from him or her, whether this leader be a king, a queen, a manager or anyone endorsing a group responsibility.
Over the past thirty years, the world has produced leading economic figures and put them under the spotlight in ways that had traditionally been reserved for sportsmen, movie and showbiz stars. People like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in technology; Jack Welsh, Bernard Arnault or Lakshmi Mittal in more traditional industries; Jeff Bezos or Jack Ma, entrepreneurs 5.0 who understood before anyone else how to harness the potential of the new digital continent; Warren Buffet or George Soros who surfed on the financialization of the economy. It might seem difficult to identify what is similar among such different leadership personalities, but they do share some fundamental characteristics.
We believe the following definition of leadership summarizes them well: “the ability to lead a human group, whatever its size, toward an identified aim, in a legitimate, credible, inspiring, mobilizing and protective way to ensure the survival, success, recognition, development, well-being, trust and loyalty of each member of the group and of the group itself, regardless of the situation or the predictability of the future”.
So leadership goes beyond technical expertise and skills, and encompasses a large spectrum of human qualities. Find out for yourself: ask a few colleagues if they have ever been managed by a bad leader. Then ask them if they have ever been managed by a good leader. Ask them for the words that describe both. Technical competencies rarely come first. But human qualities such as respect, trust, support and recognition, or lack of them all, are always in there. And so, while technical skills are a prerequisite, what makes the difference are human behaviors and characteristics.
This does not mean that there is a universal leadership style to “copy-paste” everywhere. Many factors shape the type of leadership that is required in a given company or business. Some are cultural: Americans are not Chinese; the French are not Russians; Protestants are not Muslims and their relationship to authority is not the same. Different business lines also require diverse leadership and management cultures (e.g. profit vs non-profit; industrial vs services; industrial slaughterhouses vs horticulture; digital pure-players vs traditional media), and so does the environment in which leadership develops (e.g. unstable vs stable; uncompetitive vs crowded; domestic vs international). But whatever the context, successful leaders more or less embody the characteristics proposed above.
Nevertheless, we are going through a period of fundamental disruptions. Traditional benchmarks are being challenged and we don’t have new and clear ones to replace them. So, anyone concerned with developing leaders is wondering: what will the leaders of tomorrow have to look like given that we have only a rather confused idea of what the future will be like? Will they look like the ones we have known, trained and evaluated using our different, existing leadership models? But these did not prepare them to manage in an unpredictable environment and respond to the expectations of fundamentally different generations. Will they be politicians, entrepreneurs, opinion leaders, autocrats, servants, artists, gurus, wizards? A combination of them all? Or none of the above?
Some companies are looking for an answer to the question: “what will the “digital leader” be like?”. But they seem to forget that unless leadership ends up being delegated to some kind of currently hypothetical artificial intelligence, leaders are and will remain deeply human, not digital.
Whatever happens, next generation leaders will still need to develop the leadership characteristics we described above and do that in a context of major uncertainty both in the external environment and within the corporate community.
We’ll have a look at this environment in Step 2: the world as it goes.