Real Leadership in Turbulent Times

U.S. President Harry Truman dealt with the end and aftermath of the second world war during his eight years in office. He had a sign on his desk which said, “The Buck Stops Here” meaning that he had no one to blame for any failures of policy. Truman, like many authentic leaders, had a deep sense of responsibility and the humility to acknowledge that while the responsibility was his and his alone, he also had to seek out the best advice and counsel in difficult times.

I will not belabor the point by contrasting the leadership style of the 33rd and 45th U.S. President. I believe history will judge Donald Trump and his incompetent administration responsible for many of the thousands of deaths and much of the economic hardship that  SARS-CoV-2 has brought to the United States due to his gross mismanagement of the crisis.

Franz Heukamp

Instead, I want to focus on a virtual breakfast workshop that IESE’s Dean Franz Heukamp and I ran for 13 of CEOs of large Spanish companies last week on the current situation. We brought the CEOs together to give them a summary of what different IESE professors have been saying about the managerial implications of the emergency and to encourage them to share their thoughts and ideas with each other.

You can find the Webinars we have been offering on the IESE Web Site as well as IESE’s Linked In page. IESE took the decision early on to disseminate the webinars openly in order to do what we can to help our alumni and other managers cope with the situation.

Like Harry Truman, the CEOs felt their responsibility deeply and understood that they had to make decisions with material impact on people’s safety and their economic future. I took seven key ideas from the conversation and share them below, again in the hope that others can learn from them.

  1. The key issue for the CEOs was the safety of their employees, customers, and other stakeholders. Many had taken the difficult decision to close facilities even before the government had imposed the State of Alarm here in Spain. Others had to manage people’s safety while keeping their operations running.
  2. Several of the CEOs faced the challenge of having part of their business fully stopped while having to run another part beyond their normal capacity due to the specific sectors they were involved with such as medical equipment and pharmaceuticals. Their challenge was to manage simultaneously in different realities.
  3. All of the CEOs stressed the importance of constant and multifaceted communication with all of the different types of people they were involved with. In some cases, this had to with having difficult conversations with the Unions and government agencies in Spain and around the world as many of the CEOs run multinational companies.
  4. The CEOs also stressed the importance of change management in these times as many standard practices had to be abandoned overnight and new ones created and deployed on the fly.
  5. A common theme was how they and their people were able to push digitalization beyond what was thought to be possible in just a few short weeks.
  6. One of the CEOs confessed how impressed he had been by the talent that the crisis had brought out in his own organization. A common theme was how a crisis brings out the best in some people.
  7. The last point, which was debated at some length, was how the crisis obliges a leader to think across several dimensions of time and to use scenarios to imagine what the future may bring.

One CEO summed this up as Now, Tomorrow, and The Day After Tomorrow. Now is about all the measures that have to be taken to ensure safety, liquidity, and in some cases being able to maintain or even exceed production. Tomorrow has to do with making sure that the company will be able to bounce back as soon as the immediate danger passes and the restrictions are lifted. The Day After Tomorrow is about already re-thinking the business’s operating model as a result of changes we may see in society in the aftermath of SARS-CoV-2.

The discussion on this last point had to do with whether there was enough time in the day to actually think about tomorrow, let alone the day after. What the CEOs did find time for last Friday was to have a cup of coffee and listen to each other in a demonstration of their own humility and sense of responsibility.

This is what the Kennedy School’s Dean Williams calls Real Leadership.

 

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