Posted & filed under Blog, Executive Coaching.

“It makes me so happy. To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing…. A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It’s the best possible time of being alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.”

From the play Arcadia at Duke of York Theatre.

It is almost as if nature got fed up with us not making the right decisions for the world and decided to beat us into submission.

This virus has caused a huge polarity of experience across the whole world. My heart goes out to those people who have lost loved ones and livelihoods or whose long term physical or mental health has been impacted by these circumstances. Certainly, for many people, these have been incredibly tough times. The reporting has often focused on numbers of cases or deaths, but the reality has been mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, partners and best friends of many human beings have lost jobs, suffered or died and therefore there is a significant grieving going on, much of which cannot be fully completed because of lack of the opportunity to hold proper funerals or say goodbye properly to workplaces and colleagues or to complete schooling or degrees.

For many others, this virus has caused an opportunity to step back from the normal chaos and rush of everyday life and to experience a different way of working and living. Many people seem to be experiencing the impact of more time with loved ones, the productivity of working without having to commute; time spent in exercise, meditation, cooking and eating good healthy food; more time connected to family and friends albeit not physically; the huge shift in air and noise pollution caused by the reduction in industry and traffic.

People have said “we are all in the same boat” – but I would suggest that, whilst we might be all in the same storm, everyone has different boats and some are much nicer and safer than others.

Systemically, some political enemies appear to be working better together; central banks seem much more co-ordinated; there is a huge degree of inter-company collaboration in developing things like vaccines and equipment; phenomenal investment is being made by governments and commercial enterprises in finding cures and vaccines and in supporting those who have been most negatively impacted. Conversely, many charities are losing significant proportions of their funding and the negative impact seems yet again to hit the already most disadvantaged worse.

The purpose of this paper is to help business leaders as they consider leading their organisations to whatever new normality emerges as the world finds its way to an ongoing, hopefully more stable, position. IF a new normality emerges.

When I started to write this, I did not mean it to be so long. I suggest you read it slowly, stop regularly, use the questions to help you reflect. Perhaps have a notebook beside you to capture your thinking. Listen to yourself, not only in answering some of the questions, but also in what provokes you and what moves you. My wonderful supervisor, Steve Dilworth, has a frame “What? So What? Now what?”; perhaps you could use that as a mechanism for capturing what you want to do with the insights I hope you get.

As you reflect, perhaps it is also worth remembering that everything is impermanent, nothing is certain except that one day we will die, and life moves on. Find some peace in the fact that this is yet another stage in our ongoing development. This poem by Mary Oliver, called Wild Geese, captures it for me:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

This paper considers the following various aspects of this moving on. (I hesitate to call it ‘recovery’ because that implies a return to the old, which I believe is unlikely and, possibly, unwanted).

1. Determining your leadership purpose and what kind leader you want to be
2. Staying connected to the humanity of each other
3. Learning from the experience
4. Building a plan for your new normal
5. Protecting and sustaining the world and nature better and addressing some of the fundamental issues facing the world.

What kind of leader do you want to be?
It seems to me that this is a fundamental question, your answer to which determines whether or not you even bother reading the rest of this paper. I love the idea of the leadership signature that I have taken on from the wonderful organisation Relume and developed in my own way.
• What is your purpose as a leader now? What is the change you stand for? What is needed from you in the world?
• What core values and principles do you want to bring to your leadership and life?
• What experience do you want to create for the people impacted by your leadership? (NOT, what do you want them to think about you but more how do you want them to feel and grow as a result of your leadership?)
• What mindset or attitude will support you to be the best you can be?
• What energy is needed now to move things forward in the best possible way?

Other questions that might help you right now are:
• When you look back on this period over the next few years, what do you want to be most proud of? What would you love the people who are around you to most know truthfully about you?
• What opportunities are available to you right now that, in taking them, you could influence the best possible outcome for the world?
• If you brought all of your skills, experience, positive attitudes and key relationships to bear what could you create or influence that would make the biggest difference?

Knowing these are big questions, take some time for you to reflect. What way forward emerges for you as you consider these questions? What might you do if you were slightly more courageous?

While you consider these aspects, you might want to reconsider your current view of what a leader’s role is. For example, I love this quote from the complexity expert Ralph Stacey quoted to me by Khurshed Dehnugara many years ago:

“The true role of a leader of a creative system is not to foresee and take control of the journey, but to contain the anxiety of its members as they operate at the edge of chaos where they are creating and discovering a new future that none could possibly foresee.”

This seems really relevant now. What other assumptions about your role need revisiting?

Staying connected to the humanity of each other
The people you lead (and those you once led whom, for whatever reason, are no longer led by you) went through a whole range of experiences in these last few months. Indeed, you probably went through a whole range of different experiences. You will see people in your residual organisation who, as a result of their experience, are relaxed, stressed, elated, grieving, fearful, despondent, hopeful, pessimistic, catastrophic, exhausted, refreshed, angry, proud and in many other states. If they are not in those states now, they might have “met” them along the way.

People will have learned new skills and new approaches and about themselves. They will have adapted to new ways of living and had conversations they never expected to have. They might have closed down to avoid further pain and uncertainty, and they might have opened up to new possibilities and perspectives. Many of them will have confronted challenges they have not confronted before now. They will have lost loved ones, suffered illnesses themselves, cancelled holiday plans, really missed people they were not allowed to see, played games they never have played before, learned new things and connected with others in different ways.

It will be so tempting to assume that everyone else’s experience has been somewhat similar to our own because the ‘rules’ we have generally lived to over the last few months have been the same. You might want to pay attention to any assumptions you are holding based on your experience. I had a garden to spend time outside in; I had an office of my own at home to work from; I had two of my grown up children living at home too so I knew where they were and was able to support them (and they me); I had the technology I needed to communicate effectively; I didn’t have children at school that needed home-schooling attention; my partner and I were lucky enough to really get on with each other; whilst my work was significantly affected, I was lucky enough to have sufficient funds to mean I could pay my bills for the next few months; I am surrounded by people who care about me; I can walk to local shops and have good, quiet, unpopulated spaces I can exercise in; whilst my doctor son was tested positive for Covid 19 he recovered quickly; nobody close to me died from it (yet); etc. All of these aspects, and many more, inform my experience and none of them are universal. Any single one of them being different might have fundamentally changed how I experienced this last period.

Here are some practical suggestions that might help you be the best leader you want to be in this context:
1. Find a way of looking after yourself and those close to you by:

a. Finding mechanisms to ‘process’ your own experiences so that you are left with a positive frame and a clear way forward, better enabled to be the leader that is needed for these times. These mechanisms might be: talking with a good friend, a coach or a therapist; using meditation and mindfulness to still and calm your mind; capturing your experiences in a diary or reflective log; playing a sport or doing an activity that helps you to ground yourself; immersing yourself in creative and nurturing activities such as music, drawing, painting, gardening etc..

b. Maintaining those aspects of your personal life that served, energised, nurtured and protected you in these last few weeks and months. Did you sleep better? Did you do more exercise? Did you cook and eat more healthily and drink less alcohol and more water? Did you spend more time with your family enjoying their company? Did you check up more often with family members and good friends? Did you read more? Did you learn new skills? Were you more mindful? What else did you do to look after yourself? How can you learn from and continue these activities?

c. Continuing those times and activities when you helped and supported someone else. Who did you care for in these times? Who did you more regularly check up on and give succour to? How did you find that giving of care actually supported you even in just feeling better about yourself?

2. Help the people you lead to process their own experiences in these times so that they can be more enabled and feel cared for and supported. This is an opportunity to really listen to the stories of their lives and truly both understand the people you lead and help them to move forward constructively. It is in times like this that many of the strongest relationships are formed. Take this time to help your whole organisation to stop, listen, reflect, care and connect with the basic humanity of the situation. If you cannot meet everyone yourself, then also engage the other good leaders in your organisation and the good listeners, regardless of their status, to create a listening frame – while still modelling it yourself. Nobody is at fault, nothing needs to be defended so the ground is fertile for non-judgemental curiosity into what happened for each of the people you lead and for them to understand you better and trust you more. By modelling really powerful empathetic listening you can influence their personal agency and confidence for the better and, if you get it right, you can create a new organisational culture based on trust, confidence, care, kindness and connectedness regardless of what the organisation culture was like before we went through this major experience together. Of course, share the fact that you invested in yourself and in processing your personal experience, as that will encourage them to do the same.

3. Create opportunities for the people in your organisation to do the letting go of the past that they have been deprived of in so many ways in the last few weeks and months. There are many mechanisms in which this can be done effectively, safely and constructively if you lean into it. Story-telling, artistic expressions, writing poems, acting/drama etc all help as do co-coaching and systemic constellations work.

4. Engage your people as much as you can in determining the new culture that is wanted based on the learnings from the recent times. There are many empowering mechanisms such as World Café, Future Search and Viral Change that work with big groups of people in creating, together, new ways forward. You trusted so many of your people to work from home – trust them now to design and build the culture that will significantly nurture and protect your new organisation for the future.

Learning from the experience

‘Now more than ever, we must abandon the performative and embrace the authentic. Our essential mental shifts require humility and patience. Focus on real internal change. These human transformations will be honest, raw, ugly, hopeful, frustrated, beautiful, and divine. And they will be slower than keener than we are used to. Be slow. Let this distract you. Let it change how you think and how you see the world. Because the world is our work. And so, may this tragedy tear down all our faulty assumptions and give us the courage of bold new ideas.’

– Aisha Ahmad; Professor, Author, Lecturer as given to me by Milly Rolle.

Here are some questions for you that might support you as a business leader in considering your steps into the new way forward. I hope that, by considering these now and keeping these in your mind, you will already be seeing answers that will support you as you plan your recovery:

• Who were the real heroes of this time? Who stepped up? What were the stories in your organisation that really touched you? How might you amplify those stories and what do those stories tell you about the real culture of your organisation rather than the values written on the posters on the walls?
• What are you most proud of in yourself? What does this tell you about who you would love to be as a leader that showed up even just a little bit in these times?
• What worked? What delighted you and positively surprised you? What confirmed your own hopes for how the organisation, its leaders, its people and its systems would work in a crisis? How can you make sure you build those things into the new ways of working once you have recovered?
• What did you really learn? What will you do differently and how will you lead differently as a result of your experience over the last few months?

Building a plan for the new normal
I would encourage you to take this very unusual opportunity to revisit your transformation plans for the organisation based on what you have learned from this experience. There is a possibility that you will have seen significant impacts such as:
• Your people being even more productive with remote/virtual working
• Your work spaces needing redesigning to cater for social distancing that you might need or want to retain
• The need for significantly less international travel because people can connect very effectively using technology
• Your leaders stepping up and connecting on a human level with their teams in a way they had not consciously done in the past
• Your people and your organisation being much more adaptable than you previously believed they could be
• People proving themselves (or letting themselves down) in a way that you had not had the opportunity to see before
• The true values of the organisation – rather than those written on posters on the walls – becoming clearer in a way that will help you much better to understand how you motivate and transform the people in it
• The need to be prepared better for future pandemics and other global issues
• The positive impact on the environment that the shutdown has enabled – which might inspire you to make your organisation much more environmentally friendly
• Stark exposure to social need and social difference in such a way that the energy has grown for your organisation having a bigger, wider purpose beyond just commercial.

I love this quote from Jaworski in his book Synchronicity:

“If individuals and organisations operate from the generative orientation, from possibility rather than from resignation, we can create the future into which we are living, as opposed to merely reacting to it when we get there… One of the most important things we can do individually and collectively is to create an opening, or to “listen” to the implicate order unfolding, and then to create dreams, visions and stories that we sense at our centre want to happen”

When you look at these factors perhaps you could consider the following questions
• When you really stop and listen, what is ‘the implicate order of things unfolding’?
• What has significantly shifted in your context that you must take account of as you plan? What are the new challenges and opportunities exposed by this recent set of events and the way in which the world and your people have dealt with it?
• What energy or excitement for change has been provoked within you that you would like to explore further?
• What seems more possible now, having been through this experience together?
• In 4-5 years’ time, looking back, what would you feel most proud of as you came out of this unusual phase?
• What would you like your organisation to be much better prepared for in the future?
• Who would you now trust to fully support a fundamental shift and adjustment in the way your organisation operates? Who do you need to have a more difficult conversation with? How could you ideally engage all the people you trust in designing, developing and delivering your way forward?
• What could you create together if you exploited this sense of adaptability that has been exposed to you?
• What would you love the reputation of your organisation to be within its employees, its stakeholders, the wider public that reflects the new context you will be operating in? What stories about your organisation and the way you lead it would you love to have told?

Now sit down with your people and plan again.

Protecting and sustaining the world and nature better
I started this paper talking about nature fighting back.
I love this quote from Margaret Wheatley’s recent book ‘Who Do We Choose to Be?’.

“An invitation to the Nobility of Leadership.
It is possible, in this time of profound disruption, for leadership to be a noble profession that contributes to the common good. It is possible, as we face the fearful complexity of life-destroying problems, to experience recurring moments of grace and joy. It is possible, as leaders of organisations, communities, and families, to discover deep and abiding satisfaction in our work if we choose not to flee or withdraw from reality. It is possible to find a path of contribution and meaning if we turn our attention away from issues beyond our control and focus on the people around us who are yearning for good leadership and engage them in work that is within reach. It is possible to use our influence and power to create islands of sanity in the midst of a raging destructive sea. So much is possible if we consciously and wisely choose how best to step forward as leaders for this time.”

Any serious and sensible leader, prepared to face reality, would tell you that the way we live and operate is in serious danger of putting the world at risk and eliminating many of nature’s species.

In broad terms, really respected experts tell us that if we increase global temperatures by more than 2 degrees centigrade we set off a series of events (including melting the Siberian permafrost and drying out the Amazon rainforest) that will inevitably lead global temperatures to increase by 4 degrees and, in doing so, lay most of the world to either ocean flooding or desert wasteland. If we burn more than 1/6th of the world’s already recognised and valued fossil fuels we will automatically do that. Significant species are already being wiped out and experts tell us many many more will do so in the next few years if we do not change, including those like bees that have a fundamental role to play in our food chain.

The future is not only about the environment. In this last period, yet again, we have seen those who were most advantaged gaining even more, and those who were previously already disadvantaged becoming even more so. We do need as a world to address extreme poverty and the severity of the current inequality. We have seen just recently the surfacing of decades and even centuries of anger about systemic racism. In the last few years we have seen a fightback against sexual abuse and sexism which has still to fundamentally address many of the core issues. Mental illness is becoming increasingly both prevalent and exposed. Whilst it appears that homophobia and lack of understanding about gender confusion are reducing, nevertheless we are nowhere near where we need to be as a society in the genuine embracing of difference.

We have to change the way we live and work and we have to change quickly. Fundamental personal questions come to mind that you might like to consider are:

“If not me, then who? If not now, then when?”
“If every company and leader made the decisions (or avoided them) in the way I am (or we are) doing, would the world be better off or worse off?”

On a very practical basis, this knowledge that we ought to have (and can reasonably be expected to have) can either support us in making the tough decisions that improve climate, protect nature and reduce prejudice, hatred, abuse and abject poverty or will expose us to increasing unrest and protest and litigation on our lack of action.

This last few months’ experience has demonstrated so visibly how quickly and positively nature responds to a curtailing of our activities.

What are you going to do? How are you going to lead your organisation into this new phase of global change? What do you want your children and grandchildren to say about your contribution to the ongoing climate and species diversity, to the reduction of extreme poverty and the elimination of abuse and prejudice?

What if you were 10 times braver? How might you use the possibilities that have been exposed in the last few months for fundamental change?

Here are a few suggestions:
• Read the writing on the wall! Significant change is going to happen. You might be able to act early and therefore have competitive advantage because one day we will all have our hands forced.
• Get yourself and your fellow leaders fully informed – there are really good experts out there that can unemotionally, practically, sensibly and truthfully update you. You then have more knowledge and more choice about how you, your teams and your organisation move forward.
• Revisit growth plans and determine how necessary and sustainable they really are. Do not automatically assume old levels of sales and production, profit and dividend, remuneration and bonus need to be sustained. A different expectation has been created by this last few months’ experience – exploit this in making different decisions and building new plans now in enabling a more sustainable and fairer world. Use this opportunity to challenge every activity that your organisation does that impacts the environment and determine whether it is really necessary.
• Lean into the possibility that sustainability for the world and nature and fairness for all people also enables sustainability of the organisation. There is so much evidence that supports this view. By leaning into it you are much more likely to realise possibilities that allow investments, plans and cultures to support this on an ongoing basis.
• Learn from others. There are a number of organisations that are managing to deliver significant improvements in their carbon footprint, in their positive impact on natural diversity and their genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion. There are organisations that are aligning significant social change hand-in-glove with their commercial interests and growing wonderfully as a result. Your experts will help you with this and you are likely to have a core employee base that has informed itself in this respect. Do the research and learn from those organisations and employees. And watch how what you do then really inspires both employees and customers.
• Take the courageous decisions. Be proud of yourself when you tell your children and your grandchildren of the shifts you made to protect the world that they will have to live in when you are no longer leading your organisation. Create the organisation that all decent, forward-thinking, sustainable organisations want to emulate.

Or think about the people around you and encourage those with more courage to take up the battle. Consider the possibility of standing aside and letting them lead towards what’s needed in the world. Indeed, that might be the most courageous step you could take.

Jeremy Keeley – Aziz Executive Coach