Leadership lessons from global disruption
The world has certainly had its fair share of unpredictable, disruptive events in the 21st century. From the financial crisis of 2008, Brexit, COVID-19 and most recently, the war in Ukraine - all of which have rocked the global business world sending reverberations to our workforce. It’s these moments in time where leaders and people can form the closest bond, and where the actions and decisions by leaders can make or break their reputation. It’s also during these disruptive times where leaders are often thrust into the spotlight as people need to be reassured in times of crisis. And providing a human voice on behalf of a business, community or other place of purpose shows genuine care on a human level.
As a business leader in times of change, roles and responsibilities need to be navigated cautiously. It takes careful skill and preparation to communicate humbleness without glorifying or glossing over the events or disruption in question, and while no leader ever wants to experience these events first-hand, they do need to be seen as stepping up to the challenge for the sake of the workforce.
Having taken Cornerstone through some of these disruptive events in my tenure as a leader, I’ve encountered many challenges and learnt lessons along the way when it comes to leading through disruption.
Step out from the shadows
The greatest leaders of our time often define leadership as giving power to the people. As Lao Tzu once said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves,” however when it comes to disruption, and especially on a global level, people expect quite the opposite of their leader.
Being seen and heard and keeping communication lines open so that employees and stakeholders feel an element of comfort is crucial. Having the gift of virtual meetings and communication means it’s easier than ever to be the visible leader that people want. If an event has a direct impact on your company and your people, it’s vital to keep communication as regular as possible. Depending on the circumstances, daily, weekly, monthly or ad-hoc updates or meetings clearly help to calm anxieties amongst your workforce.
Avoid a blanket approach
Global disruptive events play out differently across the globe. We know this only too well with COVID in Europe when Italy became the first European country to enforce a lockdown – although other countries followed suit shortly after, the people of Italy were the first to face such measures and therefore faced their own, unique challenges that no other country had dealt with yet. Local business leaders at the time had to quickly pivot, almost overnight while other countries dealt with different rules and regulations at that time. Similarly with the financial crisis of 2008, the economic crisis started in the US, but quickly spread to the rest of the world, with most of the world depending on the US consumer as a source of demand. With countries being affected by events at different touchpoints, making collective, blanket decisions or taking general action without being aware of what’s happening on the ground can make leaders seem out of touch.
Although you want to try and be as common as possible in your strategy and action, following disruption, you also need to be different as needed. This ‘glocal’ approach ensures global effectiveness but with local relevancy and is an effective way to deal with global disruption. But to do this, you need to get the communication pathways among countries in a solid, transparent position. The reason you hire local talent in the first place is so that they can be a part of your global journey, so making sure the decision making happens at a local level is crucial. Keeping a regular, local ear to the ground by catching up with country managers or executives can help to position your global message on a local level – world events affect your regional people in different ways so as long as you maintain a consistent tone, but be attuned to local nuances, your message will be transported to all corners of the globe with relevancy.
While many global disruptive events provoke a sense of uncertainty, fear and ambiguity, previous events have proven that we can survive them, and a lot of that comes from embracing the resilient mindset we develop by learning and growing from the experiences. As leaders, we should epitomise resilience, and if we can show that we have a strong attitude, people are able to feed off that in a positive way which then orchestrates into a better overall sense of responsibility and collectiveness toward the experience of these events.
Incorporating “probortunities”, viewing problems as opportunities, can be a helpful way to understand each issue as it arises and determine a strategy to address them. While all leaders want to be viewed as superheroes with the ability to solve each problem in the blink of an eye, the reality is that every disruption is different and requires a different level of thinking or action. But if we can learn to be better at making decisions to move forward, then when the next problem arises, we’ll be better equipped to fix it.
The leadership paradox
Leadership itself remains a paradox. The way we think about it and try to understand it, especially during global disruption, often doesn’t translate into the reality of the situation.
No matter how many books, articles and information leaders take upon themselves to digest about leadership, the truth is that global leadership is an art form. Rather than using one colour and one technique to paint a picture of the global scene, leaders need to have a variety of paint brushes, paint pots and other tools to cover a canvas that depicts a holistic picture of their global organisation.
While we cannot predict the next global disruption, I believe we are better prepared as leaders to optimise agility and readiness across people and business. We are more resilient as we’ve learnt and grown from the experiences, we know it’s important to position ourselves front and centre and keep communication open and transparent, and we’ve proven that by adopting a ‘glocal’ approach in navigating disruptions we remain in touch, relevant and on strategy.
Chief International Officer, Cornerstone