It has become abundantly clear that in recent weeks two distinct positions on political leadership have taken shape. One, the recognition of leadership and governments doing a great job with the response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the resulting Covid-19 pandemic and then the obvious second, where groups and nations are not impressed and understandably resisting leadership direction.
I became interested when observing the large number of news platforms observing “good leadership” amongst world leaders. Many who not so long ago took quite a bit of flack on the same media platforms. On further investigation, I noticed a number of world leaders (or those in prominent districts) have seen noticeable and some even substantial improvement in their poll ratings.
Interestingly, many commentators are already noting Covid-19 as the world biggest intelligence failure. Did we not have enough information, or did we not act fast enough on the available information? Yet the polls reflect the perception that the majority of world leaders are doing a good job. Are these leaders suddenly better? Do they perhaps excel at crisis leadership? Or does it say something about followers?
1. Leadership vs Followership
Leadership is a well-studied subject and has been around as long as man congregated in some form of organised structure. Checking with Amazon, they list more than 60,000 titles related to “leadership”. “Followership”, not so much. Only 335 titles associated in books.
In recent weeks there has also been a surge in articles about “Leadership During Crisis Navigating Complexity and Uncertainty” (CorporateLearningNetwork.com), “Are You Leading Through the Crisis … or Managing the Response?”(HBR), “10 Steps to Effective Coronavirus Crisis Leadership” (Inc.com) and “Why Are Some Leaders Better At Managing A Crisis? (Forbes.com), to name a few. There was a similar trend in 2001 and again 2008/2009. Still I note not much being said about followership in these times.
Going to literature, I found the following definition from the work by Crossman & Crossman “Conceptualising Followership – a review of the literature” that speaks for itself:
“Followership can be defined as a process in which subordinates recognise their responsibility to comply with the orders of leaders and take appropriate action consistent with the situation to carry out those orders to the best of their ability. In the absence of orders they estimate the proper action to contribute to mission performance and take that action” (Townsend and Gebhart, 1997:52).
The question is then, when in crisis, is it leadership that improves or followership that improves? Has the Covid-19 pandemic improved our collective need to do that which is beneficial to the group and, in the process, we postpone our own self-interest and therefore become better followers? The challenge for leaders is that any emergency is complicated and there is usually not much time to get input from everyone before action is needed. In times of crises do we find that followers are more tolerant for not being included in decision-making?
“Leadership in an emergency is complicated by the blatant dichotomy between the need for careful response planning and the unavoidable spontaneity of events.” (Klein et al,. 2006)
I would argue that, from my observations, in such times people want leaders “to get on with it” and “make a decision, any decision”. It means we as followers become more tolerant and subordinate our own competence in managing the situation. Lacking information to make good decisions, we more easily accept direction given by leadership who we assume must have better information and therefore able to make better decisions. In times of crisis we seek definite and clear leadership and when the call to action resonates with our own conclusion of viable actions, we deem the leadership to be great. Simply, we offer unconditional trust because we don’t have much of an alternative visible to us at the time. Time will tell and, possibly, perspectives will change as more information becomes available.
2. Do business leaders need a crisis?
Business leaders might not have the benefit that world leaders can explore at a time of crisis. The thing is, even in highly disrupted businesses, the crisis moves at a slow pace. Unlike the suddenness of a collapsed stock market or the impact of the pandemic we are dealing with now, the sequence of events and outcomes are not sudden nor substantial at any point for a business being disrupted. Rather, business leaders have to steer through a gooey sloth of business change, often to the ignorance of those not closely involved. Those not close to the helm would not see the change in the waters until such time as the waves break over the bow, suddenly very surprised. This happens to leaders too. We have seen too many such situations in recent years…
However, where situations are sudden i.e. environmental disaster or a major failure at company operations, we again see the differentiation between crisis leadership (and follower acknowledgement) vs those that disappear in silence and no one knows what is happening next. Restless followership ensues.
Bar the realities of any environmental or operational crisis that deserve their own reflection, companies are actually always dealing with the slow crisis of being beaten by their competition. Should business leaders then create or maintain a sense of crisis to improve the attention of the organisation? Will such sustained call-out not cause fatigue and result in the fable of the boy that cried wolf? Or should followers be coerced in understanding the important role they have in recognising complacency, abolishing over confidence (when all is well, we can all be better leaders, right?) and rather get on with executing strategy? So often I’ve heard “management has no strategy”, yet it is written, spoken and monitored all the time. Does comfort bring resistance to the acknowledgement of strategy? As followers, we own a disproportionate share of the responsibility for companies to face competition and execute strategies to stay afloat.
3. Where is the crisis in transforming your business?
What is now fairly certain is that we are entering an unprecedented period of economic downturn in South Africa. Economists are forecasting a deep depression and not just the continuation of a recession. The impact will be far reaching and companies, actually every company, will have to look carefully at their business- and operating models to be able to ride the storm and come out the other end.
One of the few opportunities being touted as shuttering for the storm is the subject of digital transformation. Much has been written in the last two years (and the last two weeks!) about the value of digital to companies disrupting established businesses or those countering the risk of disruption. Now is the time to reflect deeply on the subject and consider the actions to be taken. Worldwide buyer interests and behaviours will change. Observing trends following previous plagues, it took some time before people reengaged through physical interaction. They did not have digital alternatives. This time, I believe, people will push harder and longer for transacting digitally, perhaps some never going back to traditional ways. Those companies not able to respond quick enough with their digital integration into customer supply chains will simply face a slow but certain demise.
4. Leading your digital transformation
CEOs and CDOs are tasked with the resurgence of their businesses and need to resource teams to effectively deliver on new organisational strategies. It cannot be emphasised enough that you need someone that understands your business to lead your digital transformation efforts. Due to the infancy of the industry, not many business leaders are equally adept at digital transformation. It is therefore essential that leaders partner within and external to their organisations to deliver a collective strategy that will secure the success of the business. Allow your Ecosystem to support you in linking technology to your strategic objectives rather than selecting technology for the sake of technology. Organise your teams to be balanced in understanding business and customers while embracing those with specialist technical skills to offer novel solutions that differentiates. Ensure the voice of the customer trumpets louder than any other interest and above all, ensure your teams are trained and skilled to maximise the benefit of the investment. Best to not leave your supply chain behind in your digital transformation efforts.
Followers will recognise the urgency for their leaders and consider the future of their employers. The response will need to be immediate and deep. Keeping to business as usual is disingenuous and simply reckless. Now is the time to consider that everyone needs to work towards the greater collective benefit and steer all efforts towards the goals for your company, community and country.
What to do?
Your organisation is going through an unprecedented period of uncertainty and change. Make sure you have strategies and an ecosystem in place that will support you through these trying times. Rethink your business operating model and how you use your staff and partners to deliver effective solutions to your clients. Focus on improving processes, reducing waste and maximising results for your business. Yes, you can!
Johan Louw is the founder of Aguru Business Solutions. He helps companies to get ready for automation and digitalisation.
Tel: +27 82 711 1279