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Leadership and Vision for a Better Future: Cherishing the Silver Lining from a Human Tragedy

By Dr Sergio Pellegrinelli

The response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been described in military terms – a war on the virus, fought bravely by front line NHS staff and carers, and supported resolutely by other key workers. Casualties are reported daily. We have sacrificed liberty to save lives. We have turned the tide. 

While the war is not yet won and caution is the watchword to avoid the virus’ resurgence, we feel more in control and better able to cope. The gaze is now turning from the immediate battle to the future. As major conflicts of the past were drawing to a close, people did not want a return of the status quo. They wanted a better future: in that way the deaths and sacrifices would have some meaning. Might this also be the reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic that has already claimed tens of thousands of lives and millions of livelihoods, and is still rampant in some parts of the world?

The pandemic has been a human tragedy, and a major social and economic discontinuity. As such, it offers an opportunity to reimagine a better future and to bring about a transformation that addresses the challenges of our times, such as climate change and inequality. ‘Bouncing back’ is a poor image. There is no ‘back’. Attempts to recreate the past are, at best, a short-term fix for a privileged few – the impact of climate change is not going away, social injustice is not going to be tolerated. Creating a better future as we emerge from crisis requires leadership and vision.

Research by leading academic John P. Kotter (HBR, 1995) suggests that a number of conditions are necessary for organisations to transform themselves successfully: a sense of urgency; a powerful guiding coalition; a vision; ceaseless communications; short-term wins; consolidation and more change; institutionalisation of the new. Might these conditions also be applicable for transforming a nation?

The pandemic has torn apart the fabric of society, and has forced us to adapt and to innovate. It has created the conditions for transformative change. What was previously unheard of, or deemed impractical, is now a reality – whether online trials or online schooling. We know there is no quick return to ‘normal’, but a long road to contain, and eventually conquer, the virus. The economic recession and huge national debt have focused people’s minds. The need for the Government to act quickly and decisively is understood and accepted.

 

defining the vision in detail is vital: coalition members need to know precisely what they are committing to, and to be able to communicate exactly the same vision as their colleagues, irrespective of their own responsibilities

 

The nation may feel a sense of urgency, and we may be resigned to some painful changes ahead, but there needs to be a leadership coalition in place committed to realising a better future. For any significant change to occur, the guiding coalition must comprise the Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet. Collectively they must share and believe in a vision for the UK. My own research suggests that the leadership coalition and the vision coalesce and are mutually reinforcing – members of the coalition shape the vision to which they become committed. Importantly, defining the vision in detail is vital: coalition members need to know precisely what they are committing to, and to be able to communicate exactly the same vision as their colleagues, irrespective of their own responsibilities.

Is the Cabinet a guiding coalition? Perhaps. Interestingly, Boards of Directors of commercial organisations are rarely guiding coalitions. Most Boards, and arguably most democratic Governments, are set up to manage business as usual and bring about incremental change. Typically, there is a defined hierarchy and governance structures, individuals have roles and responsibilities and they are held primarily accountable for the effective execution of their remits. There are boundaries and demarcations, and prying too much into a colleague’s area of responsibility is generally frowned upon. Board meetings are usually cordial affairs – a sophisticated dance that respects rank and role, and avoids overt conflict.

A guiding coalition, though, thrives on challenge and passionate debate. Without challenge poorly conceived ideas are not weeded out, and the spill-over effects of ‘departmental’ strategies are not understood. Without passionate debate individuals do not express themselves fully, and do not feel heard. It is the passionate debate that generates deep understanding and commitment, and the sense of personal and collective accountability, to whatever course of action is eventually chosen.   Underpinning this candour and passion is mutual trust. Sustaining a guiding coalition demands huge personal dedication and resilience – the pace is relentless and the exposure total.

 

Sustaining a guiding coalition demands huge personal dedication and resilience – the pace is relentless and the exposure total.

 

The Cabinet has shown remarkable resolve and unity of purpose in responding to the pandemic. Can they evolve a transformational vision for the future, and sustain the cohesion and intensity of crisis management over a much longer period? Can political rivalries and ambitions be truly set aside? Who, really, is part of the coalition? What influence do political advisers wield?

The last Cabinet reshuffle in February 2020, presumably, was fine tuning to realise the Government’s then overriding priority: ‘to get Brexit done’. Now what is needed is a post-Brexit, post-pandemic vision of the UK. There has been little time to envisage the future while dealing with the spread of Covid-19. Dusting down manifesto pledges and spending plans, even if only a few months old, may not be the best option. They were drafted in a different era – certain aspects of how we live and work have changed more in a few months than in the previous decade. Espousing grand aspirations may equally be ill-advised. People are aware of what the Government can and cannot do, and of the dangers of excessive debt.

A vision has to be credible and infused with purpose. It has to be credible, given financial and other constraints, for it to engage people on the journey of change. It has to have purpose so people feel that their efforts and sacrifices are worthwhile: even if they, individually, are worse off, society and the world will be a better place. This does not necessarily entail abandoning deeply rooted convictions and goals, but it may mean revisiting how they might be achieved – leveraging new opportunities and conditions.

 

Progress that might otherwise have taken a decade or so has been achieved in a few months. It has been one of the silver linings in this human tragedy. It should be cherished.

 

For instance, one of the looming crises of our time is climate change. Lockdowns across the globe have resulted in massive reductions in emissions, and pollution in general. The pandemic has brought about some fundamental shifts in the behaviour aligned with long standing national and international aims of reducing CO2 emissions and increasing sustainability – more people working from home, fewer journeys, shorter supply chains.   Progress that might otherwise have taken a decade or so has been achieved in a few months. It has been one of the silver linings in this human tragedy. It should be cherished. Do we really want to ‘bounce back’ to previous trends in terms of emissions, pollution and unsustainable development? Yes, allowing some sectors to contract will mean sacrifices from those whose livelihoods are adversely affected.   But it is a step towards averting a far greater human tragedy during the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren. The challenge is to set out in the vision how the talents and energies of those displaced can add value elsewhere, and support the transition.

One of the Government’s stated aims is to reduce regional inequalities – ‘to level up’. One chosen strategy was investment in transport infrastructure to provide better connections across the nation and so create new opportunities. If physical proximity in many knowledge-based and professional sectors is no longer as important as it was before, broadband and mobile connectivity may be more relevant than new roads and rail connections. If organisations are creating shorter supply chains and are on-shoring operations, targeted Government support might influence where they base these operations. If the Government were to take an active hand in setting up the industries of the future, then it would have a say in where they are located.

A vision cannot be disconnected from, or at odds with, immediate actions – it loses credibility, and exposes its proponents to charges of inconsistency and hypocrisy. Every action has to bring the realisation of the vision a little closer while responding to the demands of the present. This should influence the decisions on economic stimulus packages.

 

A vision cannot be disconnected from, or at odds with, immediate actions – it loses credibility, and exposes its proponents to charges of inconsistency and hypocrisy.

 

For instance, if addressing climate change and inequality were central parts of the vision, then massive building programmes, with their associated carbon footprint, are somewhat dissonant. Clearly, repairing and renewing roads, schools and hospitals is necessary and welcome, and can stimulate economic activity and deliver immediate benefits. Perhaps more teaching assistant posts over the next school year might also provide some of the desired economic stimulus. These posts would create temporary jobs or secondments for some now employed in the aviation, hospitality and entertainment sectors while those sectors recover. The training of these teaching assistants might help to offset reductions in foreign students enrolling in UK universities and colleges. More teaching assistants would address the lost months of learning for millions of children. Education is essential in redressing inequality.

A good vision comprises destination and roadmap. A useful vision evolves in the light of circumstances, holding fast to core goals, yet replotting the journey and fine tuning the desired outcome. A compelling vision has inspiring purpose to sustain people on the journey. There are likely to be more twists and turns as we navigate our way out of the Covid-19 crisis. Let’s hope that the Government will have the leadership and vision to create a better future, cherishing the silver lining from a human tragedy.

As a case example, this thought leadership article illustrates some general, but subtle, shortcomings in dealing with risks. To read Sergio's Pellegrinelli thought leadership article, Dealing with Risks: Shortfalls in Responses, please click below to proceed to download:

 

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About the Author

Dr Sergio Pellegrinelli is a visiting fellow at Cranfield School of Management and is an experienced consultant and lecturer specialising in strategy and programme management. Sergio has over 20 years' experience as a management consultant, and his current and recent clients include Atkins, Biffa Waste Services, British Nuclear Group, Ericsson, ING, Lloyds TSB, Oracle Corporation, Quintiles and Royal and Sun Alliance. His consulting work ranges from traditional analytical consulting interventions to tailored management development aimed at embedding new skills and/or effecting change within organisations. Sergio facilitates strategy formulation processes, contributing both ideas and the strategy frameworks, and helps managers to design and undertake strategy implementation programmes, M & A integrations and complex organisational change initiatives. View full profile.

Tags: leadership, article, economics