The past two years have brought massive complexity and uncertainty. For many, the focus has been on the short term – on survival. Personally, I’ve experienced one of the most challenging contexts I’ve ever had to work in and lead people through.
We’ll be dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and its second-order effects on economies and societies for a good while to come. For the foreseeable future, and in the face of ongoing pressure, leaders will need to stay focused on resilience and help those they lead to do the same.
I’m the first to acknowledge that this is easier said than done.
My regular readers know that I often draw inspiration from the wisdom shared in the Bible. Solomon – an Israelite king and arguably one of the wisest men who ever lived – says in the book of Ecclesiastes: ‘What has been is what will be again, and what has been done is what will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.’ Solomon is advising us to take a broader view of tough times. Past generations have got through extreme stress, and so will we.
And what is to come may be better than what we once had.
Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought tragedy, in no uncertain terms. However, ‘nothing is new under the sun’ reminds us of the human capacity for resilience through any misfortune. Yes, the challenge we face is new in our lifetime. We have no perfect leadership blueprint for dealing with a situation like COVID-19. What we do have is the choice to respond to the prevailing uncertainty with humility and invest in a sense of urgency when it comes to learning from and collaborating with others for the good of all.
When people talk about showing resilience, they often refer to the ability to ‘bounce back’ when times are tough. I prefer the term ‘bounce forward’, which is often used in positive psychology. This implies going beyond a return to a pre-pandemic baseline and instead moving further ahead to a place where we are healthier, stronger, and distinctly better positioned for future challenges.
We’re already bouncing forward in many ways as we rebuild our societies and heal the rifts of the pandemic. On the medical front, we’ve made many fast advances in developing COVID-19 vaccines. In the workplace, the adoption of hybrid or remote work models is giving people greater freedom. We’re also seeing renewed investment in physical and mental wellbeing in the workplace, with many companies taking extra measures to support this critical aspect of our working lives.
The new terrain we are navigating will require visionary leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence, and excellent communication and interpersonal skills. As we bounce forward, I believe the ambient pressures will define a new benchmark for excellent leadership too.
The DNA of leadership is the ability to excel at the soft skills.
‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards,’ said the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.
Our brains are wired for certainty, predictability and safety. Yet, change is the only constant. Good leaders can bridge the divide between these two forces. We do this through a conscious focus on resilience and on a future that’s unwritten, limitless in shape and form and pliable to mould for the good of all.
Leaders – be bold and courageous. If we are brave enough to bounce forward, then every catastrophe holds the seed of something new and better.