Dimitrios Spyridinidis

Leadership is everywhere: how to do it, how to get better at it, how to act like the best.

But there has long been a gap in the leadership discussion and literature asking how to lead effectively in extreme cases.

When it comes to effective leadership in an uncertain and fast-changing environment ‘one size does not fit all’. Instead it requires contextualisation for the setting and the issue.

A crisis situation, such as that engendered by COVID-19, has led to a global health crisis and a humanitarian crisis that threatens to permanently scar the global economy.

We need to think about not only the world in which we find ourselves, but also the world that we want to build as we emerge from this pandemic and economic crisis.

We're going to need to collaborate and act in new ways, we're going to need to be mindful, not only of the present but of the future.

This is not a time for business as usual. This is a time for business unusual, because we've never faced similar problems perhaps since the Second World War.

And we haven't got an answer in our back pocket, there is no best practice for dealing with such an extreme situation. During these tough times we rely on our leaders more than ever, but it's a challenging time to be a leader.

So, as an academic who is engaged in developing leaders and leadership at the executive level, what do leaders need to do to in a crisis like the pandemic? And I would to suggest to you five key resources we use to inform our leadership development offerings for executives.

1 The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

By Ronald Abadian Heifetz, Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Martin Linsky (2009). Published by Harvard Business Press.

The world that business operates in today is not a series of technical problems to solve any more. In a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) world the challenges will predominantly be adaptive, rather than technical; they are not easy to spot or easy to solve.

Leaders always prided themselves on being excellent problem-solvers. Preparing a business to face a volatile and complex future is not one that can be solved simply by putting in the right process or upgrading to better technology.

To help lead a business successfully through this future, leaders need to move away from a ‘technical solution’ mindset and towards a more adaptive one; focusing more on people.

This book summarises some of the characteristics of leadership in a very adaptive world and some of the barriers that pull us back to embracing conformity and comfort.

2 Leadership Paradoxes: Rethinking leadership for an uncertain World

By Morgen Witzel, Nigel Linacre, and Richard Bolden (2016). Published by Routledge.

Leadership remains one of the most sought-after qualities in contemporary society, yet after centuries of research, education and debate it remains just as elusive as ever.

Too often leaders are reactive, keen to maintain the status quo and embrace conformity and comfort; they only change structures and procedures when problems occur, rather than being proactive and creating the future they would like to be part of.

And in this world of COVID, rapid change, political volatility, demographic changes, and 5G set to drive the fourth industrial revolution, that is a dangerous position to take. 

Leaders don’t like paradoxes because it creates uncertainty, they want a clear plan ahead, but the next decade will reward those leaders who work with paradox, not around it.

They will have to not only face paradox, but learn to embrace it, work with it and the uncertainty that comes with it. Instead of 'either/or' thinking they need to accept  'and/both'  options.

Indeed, they will need a passion for paradox. Leadership Paradoxes argues that the key to understanding and enhancing leadership education, theory and practice lies in the recognition of its paradoxical tendencies.

3 Leadership Agility: Five levels of mastery for anticipating and initiating change

By William B. Joiner and Stephen A. Josephs (2007). Published by Jossey-Bass.

We used to live in a VUCA environment with intense global competition, fast-paced change and information overload. Since COVID-19, the VUCA environment is on steroids.

The VUCA world requires organisations to constantly adapt and renew the product and services they offer. But how do you make sure your organisation is able to renew itself on an ongoing basis?

This is where leadership agility is needed. According to top US management consultant and coach Bill Joiner there are different levels to leadership agility; expert – tactical and problem-solving orientation; achiever – strategic, outcome orientation; catalyst – visionary, facilitative orientation.

Only 10 per cent of leaders are able to operate at the catalyst level, with a good example being Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, who built a vision about a sustainable future, bringing on board many stakeholders to follow this path.

What he did, and what a catalyst does, is to work with the right people and create the safe environment to develop the ideas for the innovations of the future.

There are four dimensions to leadership agility, each made up of two elements. The book offers a leadership compass that helps leaders identity their dimension of agility and how to improve it.

4 Fully Charged

By Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel (2011). Published by Harvard Business Review Press.

You may be successful at the moment, but how do you keep that positive energy and appetite to be successful for the next five or 10 years?

This is where organisational energy is needed. Individual energy ebbs and flows, leading to high and low productivity cycles. Fail to manage your energy correctly and you risk falling into traps, including inertia, complacency, and frenzied, unfocused activity that only erodes the quality of your life. 

The same holds true for an entire organisation. A leader needs to be able to diagnose the type of energy experienced in a team using a framework such as that identified by Bruch and Vogel, and then subsequently be able to transform and adapt it to their situation.

In Fully Charged, Bruch and Vogel provide tools and strategies to help leaders manage their company's collective energy. First, diagnose the company's "energy state" and second decide how to prepare the organisation for growth.

5 Uncommon Sense, Common Nonsense

By Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles (2013). Published by Profile Books.

I am not anti-business-as-usual, I recognise a lot of love, care, attention and passion, and years, have gone into creating great, great businesses.

But I am talking about moving them into the future. So the responsibility of leadership to free their minds, to free the organisation, to free the company to develop on common sense is enormous.

When organisations fail, it is primarily suicidal, primarily from the orthodoxies and principles the leadership team decides to promote, support, reinforce and reward.

We simply demand too much of our leaders in asking them to bounce between the two worlds of 'today and tomorrow'. Goddard and Eccles argue that the art of leadership is to build both capabilities into the organisation and maintain a balance between the two paradigms.

They demonstrate how ‘purpose’ is key to making sense of, and harmonising, this paradox.

Dimitrios Spyridonidis is Associate Professor of Leadership and Innovation and Course Director for The Warwick Executive Diploma in Strategic Leadership. He also teaches Leadership on the Distance Learning MBA and Executive MBA, plus Strategic Leadership Development on the Executive MBA (London) and Financial Conduct, Leadership and Ethics on the MSc Global Banking & Financial Regulation.

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