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25th November, 2020

Thinking about Leadership



Dr Rebekka Kill

Over the next few months I will be spending some time thinking. Thinking on my own and thinking with other people. Thinking about what might be coming next. Things are very hard at the moment and things are changing. The world is changing, and it will be permanently changed by what is happening globally. 

I want to think about leadership. Asking what kind of leadership we need, and what kind of leaders do we need to be? I was also wondering how leadership is changing, given the current context of global pandemic? What do we need now, and next? From ourselves as leaders and from future leaders? To be clear I’m definitely not thinking that this is about resilience or recovery. The rhetoric of courage, bravery, and heroism of individuals is pervasive and, in my view, unhelpful (see previous blog). I just want to think about what we need now, and next, and how we can work towards meeting that need.

The literature on leadership is extensive and it explores a broad range of cultural, geographical, specialist, global leadership in all kinds of contexts: social, educational, creative, commercial etc. But how can we think about what we might need now and next? In Ladkin’s Rethinking Leadership: A New Look at Old Questions (2020), she calls for us to shift away from a disempowering leader/follower rhetoric towards a more complex and nuanced understanding of ‘the variety of possibilities available to all actors within hierarchical systems to initiate, influence or create significant instances of leadership’ (Ladkin 2020:10). Broadly speaking this is echoed across much contemporary leadership theory. That is the idea that leadership is an interconnected system, many layered, and full of complex ideas like: authenticity, transformation, equity and inclusion, excellence, knowledge, hierarchy, forgiveness, power and empowerment, context and social justice. Of course this was written before the pandemic, so has anything changed?

For Dirani et al (2020),

‘Facing and addressing the challenges of a complex crisis like the current pandemic requires more than leaders acting alone. Relying on traditional notions of leadership – like charismatic, top-down, or authoritative approaches – is not sufficient to successfully navigate the challenges of such complex crises and unpredictable environments. Therefore, leaders should tap into the collective leadership potential of everyone in the organization.’

OK, well, that sounds like a good plan, doesn’t it? But how do we actually do that?

‘A new leadership order has emerged which has no leadership standards, no preparation or development programmes, no inspection framework, no KPIs, no benchmarks.’  (Harris and Jones 2020)

Anyone in a leadership role over the last nine months, or so, will have had to shift to a more distributed and responsive mode of working (if they weren’t already). If we think about the challenges to organisations, including those in arts, culture, heritage and higher education, these have been immense, esoteric and deeply stressful. But how do we even start? We need to assess what we have and explore what we need. 

‘Leading in disruptive times means being able to navigate a different course, to create new pathways through the disruption.’ (Harris and Jones 2020)

But how on earth do we find these new pathways? We’re all too busy acting on instinct,  firefighting and just doing our best. We need time and space to think about this.

There is little academic writing specifically about this, so far. Much of what is available is about medical, clinical and scientific disciplinary responses to the covid crisis. There is, however, a significant volume of writing from the business community. So what do the business bloggers and leadership academics think? Sneader et al., writing for McKinsey talk about personal and organisational fatigue, and the strategic need to re-energise and to act rather than react and to make big moves fast. The Harvard Business Review talks about a need for empathy. However, Professor Roger Delves, writing for the LSE blog, calls for transformation in how we develop leaders. He states that,

‘the reinvention of organisations cannot be achieved without reinventing what leadership means, and ensuring leaders are equipped to lead through that transformation.’ 

He goes on to describe how current leadership development and training is no longer fit for purpose. 

We need to reinvent what leadership is, for us, for now, and for what happens next. And we also need to rethink how leaders are developed. And most importantly we all need to make time to think.

 

References

Delves, R. (2020), Tough times call for transformations in leadership development, www.lse.ac.uk 16 March 2020

Dirani K. M. et. al. (2020) Leadership competencies and the essential role of human resource development in times of crisis: a response to Covid-19 pandemic, Human Resource Development International

Harris, A. & Jones, M. (2020), COVID 19 – school leadership in disruptive times. School Leadership & Management, 40:4, pp243-247

Heidegger, M. (1968), What is called thinking?.Trans. By Glenn G. J.. New York: Harper Perennial

Kerrisy and Edmonton (2020) What Good Leadership Looks Like During This Pandemic www.hbr.org, April 13 2020

Ladkin D. (2020) Rethinking Leadership: A New Look at Old Questions Elgar Publishing Ltd, Cheltenham.

Sneader, K. et. al. (2020) ’What now? Decisive actions to emerge stronger in the next normal’ www.mckinsey.com, September 10 2020

 


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