In November 2022, Collins Dictionary announced its word of the year: permacrisis. This is defined as “an extended period of instability and insecurity, especially one resulting from a series of catastrophic events”.
At the time, the COVID-19 pandemic felt like the crisis to end all crises, but ever since, other seismic events have been coming thick and fast. We have got used to living in a state of permanent unrest, with the recent Israel–Gaza conflict adding to the tragic global load. And with the ever-present threat of the climate crisis and the increasingly rapid pace of technological advancement, all of us – not just leaders – continue to be buffeted by a wide range of geopolitical and socioeconomic forces.
As we concluded in our three-year research on responsible business last year: “The world has shifted, not just because of COVID-19, but because the disruption has had a domino effect, changing work and personal lives for leaders and ‘followers’ alike… We remain in the throes of a major transition.”
This remains true. Many aspects of working through the pandemic are still unresolved; take, for example, the impact of remote working on organisational community and culture. There is, as we wrote in 2022, still everything to play for.
Professor Evelyn Welch, Vice Chancellor of the University of Bristol, sums it up in our final podcast episode: “The only thing you can predict is there are going to be unpredictable crises coming towards you. And when everything around you looks scary, it’s [our job as leaders] to generate an absolute sense of calm [so our people] trust us to look after their future.”
Lessons on leading in unpredictable times
So, given that the permanent state of flux can ‘look scary’, how can what we’ve learned about leadership over the past four years help us now?
From her work observing leadership during, and in the legacy of, the pandemic, Professor Veronica Hope Hailey, Dean of the University of Bristol Business School, has identified five lessons that leaders should bear in mind:
- Connectedness is key: Leaders need to connect with organisations and institutions outside of their own. The challenges we face can only be solved in partnership.
- There is no ‘get out of jail free card’ on complex issues: Pre-pandemic, leaders might have been able to get away without addressing complex social issues. This is no longer possible – stakeholders expect more.
- It’s okay not to know all the answers: Sensible leaders will admit when they don’t know, but they will know who to ask (see the importance of connectedness above).
- Always act with directive empathy: Former CEO of Nationwide, Joe Garner, spoke of the need to be both highly empathetic and directive, especially in distinctly human crises such as the pandemic, but this should remain a standard that leaders constantly strive to emulate.
- Gauge the appropriate response: Leaders cannot engage in what leadership commentator Margaret Heffernan calls “wilful blindness”. We must work with integrity, have the courage to face potential crises head on, and act appropriately.
That final one is particularly challenging, as it can be hard to assess how ‘big’ an emerging issue is likely to be. It makes external horizon-scanning a non-negotiable skill for all of us — including those in the people profession.
Rather than getting bogged down in the day-to-day machinations of internal work, leaders need to create the space and appetite to look upwards and outwards, engaging with organisations and institutions beyond their own, reading and listening widely, and seeking divergent points of view. Curiosity becomes essential, because it is only by looking outwards, recognising trends and potential shockwaves, that leaders will be able to act with the agility that today’s world demands.
Indeed, in speaking with business leaders to inform the University of Bristol Business School’s teaching, Evelyn Welch recognises that: “It’s not enough to just have our own specialisms… we need new types of leaders who are able to situate themselves in a complex global world, understand the histories of regions,… the people… and the nuance of what’s being said. No leader can do it all, and you need a much more flexible approach to who’s in your team and when you draw on that expertise.”
Managing heightened expectations
As previous thought pieces have addressed, expectations of business leaders are higher now than they have ever been. Employees and the public expect leaders to have a point of view on social issues, and if they are deemed to have got it wrong, they can expect a barrage of judgement from all sides. It’s a challenging line for leaders to walk, acknowledging, as Hope Hailey says, that no issue can now be seen as ‘too complex’, along with the additional concern of trying to balance varying opinions and rules about expressing particular viewpoints.
As a university vice chancellor, it’s a challenge Welch knows all too well: “It’s hard when everyone says, ‘I want you to fly this or that flag’,” she admits. “We [have to] protect that sense that you can have a robust, considered debate that might lead to some co-created solutions… It’s a tough place to sit.”
This extra pressure raises a risk that some might simply opt out of leadership altogether, unable or unwilling to deal with the judgement, personal attacks and lack of space to make mistakes. Making leadership more of a ‘team sport’ and less about the messianic, heroic individual is one way past this. Another is more consideration over the role of followers and the empathy that leaders, as humans, deserve to be shown.
Defining the future of responsible leadership
As Hope Hailey sums up to conclude our podcast series: “The future of responsible business is to demonstrate the importance of the role of business in society… and for business to recognise its duties and obligations to others within that society.”
Considering that interconnectedness and our own duties and obligations is key to sustaining responsible business for the future.
We quoted Matthew Taylor, CEO of the NHS Confederation, in our original report: “It is still up to us to determine what the legacy of COVID is to be. History is written by the future.”
We should all bear that in mind: we all have the agency to make a difference.
About the authors
Professor Veronica Hope Hailey
Professor Veronica Hope Hailey is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and inaugural Dean of the University of Bristol Business School.
Veronica is mainly known for her research on trust and trustworthy leadership. For the last 30 years, Veronica has worked all over the world to deliver leadership development at the most senior levels in the private, public and third sector. Her latest research, conducted in collaboration with the CIPD, focused on responsible business and leadership through crisis.
Katie Jacobs was senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD, where she rans the CIPD’s HR leader network for HRDs/CPOs. She is also a business journalist and writer specialising in business, workplace/HR and management/leadership issues.
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