As we begin International Leadership Week 2020, leaders with an international presence must harness the waves of change that Covid-19 has unleashed through the private sector, according to a new business book.

In Leaders in Lockdown, author and executive coach Atholl Duncan unveils testimony from senior figures all around the world on how they and their organisations have fared amid the pandemic.

As Duncan explains in an opinion column for a leading business journal, he spent his first 100 days of the initial UK lockdown Zooming into the kitchens of high-profile leaders and asking how they were coping. Each leader signalled that the changes they have seen in their firm will have lasting effects. (City AM, 11 November 2020)

Examples include:

  • New York Times CEO Mark Thompson riding his bicycle around the “sprawling savanna” of the paper’s Manhattan offices, realising that its past ways of working were unfit for the future;
  • Tata’s estimate that 75% of the 600,000 staff that it had moved to home working were unlikely ever to return to the office;
  • Tradeshift boss Christian Lanng’s contention that “every single long-held belief” about the way businesses should work “has been thrown out of the window”, and
  • WHOOP founder Will Ahmed’s hope that “this moment in time will shift the way humanity thinks about health”.

Duncan writes: “The Leaders in Lockdown also worried about the widening inequality that would be accelerated by Covid-19. They were anguished by the failure of politicians to cooperate across borders. Ho Kwon Ping, co-founder of Banyan Tree resorts, said that ‘the virus exposed the selfishness of countries and people far more than it has shown our ability to be compassionate internationalists’.”

On an even more concerning note, Duncan adds, some leaders are worried that organisations lack the resilience required to prepare themselves for a future shock on the other side of Covid: “Osvald Bjelland, the chief executive of Xynteo, warned: ‘My biggest message for business leaders is that another crisis is coming our way. Are we going to do anything about it? Or will it just be like Covid-19?’”

In the spirit of that call to action, former Buckingham Palace communications chief Sally Osman – now a senior adviser at management consultancy Teneo – told Duncan: “This is a moment of truth when organisations will be judged on giving purpose real meaning through action not words.

Which mission-critical skills must drive global leaders’ sense of purpose in 2021?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “This is a question not so much of skills as of values. How leaders choose to deliver on their purpose will be informed by their organisation’s strategic priorities. But the examples that Duncan highlights in his book illustrate that many strategic plans that were put in place before the Covid-19 watershed are no longer relevant or fit for purpose. They have been overwritten by the events of the past nine months.”

With that in mind, Cooper notes, leaders must address three, crucial concerns:

  1. how they respond to the coronavirus challenge to ensure they can deliver on their purpose;
  2. how that purpose is understood within their organisations, and
  3. how authentic that purpose actually is.

Cooper points out: “If we go back to our pre-Covid research on values, published almost a year ago, one quality that our survey respondents universally hailed as important is respect. At the time we issued our report, it was noted that if we treat all of our stakeholders – from colleagues and customers to suppliers – with genuine respect, that will become a lynchpin that will enable us to deliver on our broader purpose. It will act as the foundation of a values-driven type of leadership.”

She adds: “As we begin International Leadership Week 2020, that message of respect has been reinforced in an Institute webinar, featuring International Chamber of Commerce secretary general Chris Southworth, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Trade and Export Promotion co-chair Lord Waverley and Institute chief executive John Mark Williams. As Southworth and Lord Waverley note, to lead with purpose is to be values driven and to work collaboratively and inclusively across the spectrum of your stakeholder groups.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on developing strategy

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City AM, 11 November 2020