Leadership, Leadership, Everywhere/A Drop to Drink?

We always want strong leaders. Freud wrote that our “thirst for authority” is natural, even in times of stasis. But in times of crisis this thirst becomes near desperate. In times of crisis we are near desperate to find someone who can lead us out of the dark and into the light.

This more than anything else explains why in recent weeks our usual fixation on leaders has morphed into an aberrant obsession. We are smack in the middle not of one crisis but of two. They are related – the health crisis and the financial crisis – but they are not one and the same. It could reasonably be argued, in fact, that the skill set required to lead us out of one crisis is quite different from the skill set required to lead us out of the other.

To be sure, there are certain commonalities. Indeed, great leaders are so well endowed, and so amply equipped, that they are leaders for all seasons. They have the capacity to bring to all situations characteristics of character and patterns of behavior that serve them, serve everyone, well. But even leaders who are good though not great have a hard time coping with two crises simultaneously. And, even leaders who are good though not great can be overwhelmed by desperate demands coming at them from different directions.   

Hence the current onslaught of information and ideas about leadership in times of crisis. Pointing out the numberless deficits of President Donald Trump long ago became ritual. Is there anything even left to be said about his bad leadership? Just yesterday New York Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote a column titled, “How Trump is Worsening the Crisis.” As usual, Leonhardt was smart and on point. But, did he say anything new? Did he bring to the never-ending discussion about Trump anything we have not heard before?

Similarly, the spate of articles about leaders in the private sector. The Wall Street Journal points out the obvious, that the “radical new landscape” is forcing CEOs to make “tough management calls.” It cites Cisco’s CEO, Chuck Robbins, who aims to offer reassurance. And it references Marriott’s CEO, Arne Sorenson’s, emotional response to being forced to announce layoffs. And it describes how Testio’s CEO, Kieran Snyder, spends time at meetings getting employees to describe how they’re feeling. The Financial Times asked CEO’s directly: “What are your insights on the unprecedented challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic.” (Though again, the virus crisis is just one of two current crises.) Accenture’s CEO, Julie Sweet, replied she thought three things especially important: transparency, calm, and keeping close to her constituents.  Mars CEO, Grant Reid, said he was relying on his company’s five principles: quality, responsibility, efficiency, mutuality, and freedom. And Novartis’s CEO, Vas Narasimhan, talked about the importance of keeping himself well, including getting enough sleep, holding to healthy habits, and taking the long view.        

People like me, ostensible experts on the subject, are constitutionally unable right now to resist the impulse to address leadership and management in this moment of crises. All well and all good.  But before we open our mouths or put pen to paper we should ask ourselves, do we have anything to say or write that is genuinely new and demonstrably different? If we do, great. If we do not, back to the drawing board. Or, back to basics, from Lao to Plato, from Shakespeare to Stanton, from Weber to Drucker.       

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