In leadership, there are results and opinions. Most people view their own opinions as facts, but they are mostly expressions of their preferences, values, or beliefs. Sadly, people tend to opine on leadership and leaders without taking the time and effort to scrutinize a leader’s track record, and without fully understanding their leadership potential.
This is true in politics, which explains why many countries in the world are poorly governed and some are even considered failed states. In business, the average experience people have of work and their bosses is far from positive. Engagement levels have been low for decades, people join companies but quit their bosses, and 35% of Americans would happily take a pay cut if they could get rid of their manager. Edelman’s most recent benchmark barometer on trust in leaders revealed a new dip in scores. Roughly one in two people distrust their leaders.
A global pandemic makes matters worse. A devastating virus that poses both a health and social crisis means the stakes are high, failure is evident and consequential, and a leader’s performance is hard to disguise for the entire population of global leaders is facing the same challenge. COVID-19 has provided a metaphorical standardized leadership test which leaves the bad ones with nowhere to hide.
Coming to terms with the fact that this year will not look all that different from 2020, the hope is that leaders are able to display three fundamental traits that would mitigate the extended consequences of this brutal pandemic, and give us reasons to be optimistic.
We have been venerating humility for some time now, mostly because it is rarely found in leaders. Ever since Jim Collins published his seminal book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, providing compelling data that the most effective senior leaders are not just remarkably persistent, but also humble, we can’t stop paying lip service to humility.
Evidence also suggests that the chance of being promoted into leadership roles, climbing up the organizational ladder, or winning political elections, will be significantly higher if one is not humble. We mostly pick leaders based on their confidence, assertiveness, and ability to be unaware of their limitations. This is also why incompetent men are overrepresented in leadership roles, even when we try to help women get to the top. The recipe for success is to encourage them to be more confident, hide their limitations, don’t worry about what people think, and lean in even when they lack the talents to back it up.
Even the smartest leaders can’t rely on their intelligence, because the vast majority of problems they need to solve today are not well defined, and require a great amount of learning. Moreover, the majority of seasoned leaders spent a great deal of time relying on their past experience and drawing from their current expertise. Neither of these are particularly useful when dealing with an unprecedented pandemic.
Curiosity is the best way to address this problem. A strong desire to learn, a passion to ask questions rather than provide answers, and the ability to listen, challenge one’s preconceptions, and identify gaps between what you know and need to know, are what can help leaders and their teams adapt to the current challenges. If you don’t have a hungry mind, you shouldn’t be a leader. Leadership, as Gianpiero Petriglieri says, should be an argument with tradition, and the best way to challenge tradition is to have the curiosity to explore alternatives, which includes valuing a diversity of views, values, and opinions.
People, organizations, and societies are generally better off when their leaders are honest and ethical, rather than immoral or corrupt. But if you open the newspaper on any given day you will see too many examples of leaders who put their own interest ahead of their followers. There are those who exploit their power and influence to take advantage of others, and have a total inability to resist the temptation to cheat, take advantage of their status, and corrupt their organizations and institutions. In fact, unethical leadership is far more pervasive than we like to admit.
Bad leaders multiply like bacteria in contaminated environments. They act in parasitic ways, getting fat while debilitating their systems, and failing up because the rules of the game are rigged. Their Machiavellian politics turned out to be more adaptive and effective as a career lubricant than actual merit (talent and effort).
Our only hope is that leaders can master the art of self-control, find reasons to be guided by empathy or sympathy, and understand that leadership is not a personal privilege, but the ability to convince a group of people to collaborate effectively in the pursuit of a common goal: for example, to contain a pandemic or stop a virus from killing people.
There has never been a better time for humble, curious, and ethical leaders. The hope is that those in positions of power find ways to display moral courage in order to mitigate the pain for everyone else.
Instead of asking people to develop resilience—which is sadly a reflection of the leaders we have in place—let us demand a higher level of competence and performance for our leaders. The challenge is still on.