Do you remember the dance song from the 90’s – “things can only get better”? I used to love that song and would listen to it whilst getting ready to go out when I was at university.
It feels like it is a really relevant song for right now.
Waking this morning to see the pictures from yesterday / overnight in the US (I refuse to watch broadcast news or read the news in the evening) and the despicable events in Washington it leaves you incredulous. Yet, the events that happened were a relatively obvious next step to a sequence of events that were set in motion by the actions of the one of the most powerful men on the planet.
People ask why leadership matters – if every you needed an example you only need to look at the events of yesterday.
You see leadership itself isn’t good or bad – it is the simply the act of getting others to follow. A leader is anyone who moves another, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, politically. To what end, for what purpose and to what result is where the measure of good, bad, inept or excellent starts to get applied. We all have leadership within us – this ability to move others – yet there are some who’s reach is much wider, and the impact of their actions goes much further.
The problem is we have too few examples of leadership that is actually creating positive movements – leaders that are creating a move towards something better.
The examples of poor leadership abound. From the shambles of Barnards Castle, the wasted achievement of the nightingale hospitals, the delay tactics of the Chinese state refusing entry to WHO officials, the actions on the back of George Floyd’s horrific death, to the significant and growing disparity between the earnings of CEO’s to those of their front line workers (for more details read here: https://www-bbc-co.uk.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/business-55551314)
When we entered into this pandemic back in March 2020 there was a well-versed hope that out of it we might discover a more human way to live and lead. There was hope that the recognition of just how frail our perceived view of certainty was, and how completely impotent most of the political, business and social structures that exist are in the face of the threat from this natural occurrence. There was hope that after all this, after the amazing feats of personal sacrifice made by so many on the front line facing into this new threat we would discover a new way to be that was less about I and more about WE.
Yet, as we start 2021 here we are. Social unrest driven by an individual’s refusal to accept the outcome of a democratic process that his position is supposed to be the highest representation of.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. There have been many shining examples of genuine leadership, small and large in 2020. People like Jacinda Arden, the PM of New Zealand. Very early in the pandemic, in fact on March 21st she went live on TV and announced a very clear, and very bold way that NZ would try to respond to the pandemic, taking the best of what they already had in place to deal with fire threats and adapting it to the new needs. A great example of strong leadership with real clarity based on existing proven methods. Her fast action, when others around the world seemed more concerned about their own popularity, showed that above all else she wanted to do what was best for the people she was charged with caring for. What really stands out Arden was the clarity, and the compassion with which she communicated the approach to her people – her parting words were “Please be strong, be kind and unite against Covid 19”.
In the US Adam Silver also shone. He is the commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA) and took the unprecedented step on March 11th to suspend all professional basketball matches. This was the same day that the WHO announced that Covid was a pandemic and weeks before others in the US accepted Covid to be anything more than a Chinese disease! The NBA is worth $8bn a year and yet, what mattered most to Silver and his team was the health and well-being of the players, the staff and the fans of their teams.
There are lots of examples. Captain Tom here in the UK and his personal commitment to do something to help, despite being 100 and struggling with mobility. His actions led to a huge unity in support of the front-line NHS teams, far more than any of the political leaders who are paid to do this.
What comes through all of these examples, both good or bad, is the extent to which leaders look beyond themselves and CARE for the people who they have been charged with leading (and by definition protecting). I have said leadership is about movement and I believe this to be the case. Yet, if we look at human evolution since the very earliest days where we left the forests and became hunter gatherer tribes there has been a need for individuals to lead the tribe, family group or social structures. There has been a need for a figurehead. What was the fundamental purpose of these figureheads? To protect and care for their people.
Back over our evolution leaders who failed to protect and care for their people soon found themselves with no support and, ultimately the removal of their power. Leaders who demonstrated fierce courage, strength and a tenacity to protect and care for, to provide and support their people attracted more and more followers staunchly loyal to them. This loyalty and unity provided these leaders with great personal power and yet, they used this power to protect and serve their tribe.
There has always been a hierarchy, there has always been a need for leadership tiers and with this comes power and also wealth. There is no real issue with leaders having a larger share of the pie, given that they need to stay strong and well-resourced to protect their people. The issue comes when this gathering of wealth and power starts to come in the service of self and at the expense of the tribe. When the actions of the leader are geared towards protecting their own position rather than protecting the people they should be caring for.
Somewhere along the way we have lost sight of this truth. Today, too many leaders look to protect themselves and serve their own interests, and too few looks to serve others and protect and care for the very people that have given them the opportunity to lead. Without followers’ leaders don’t exist. You cannot lead a band of 1 – if you are out there alone you are not leading you are simply lost.
I believe there is hope for a better way. I believe that we can do better as a species and there is more call for the Silver’s, Ardern’s and Captain Tom’s. I believe that each and every person who reads this has an opportunity to move people towards a better way to be. All we need to do is ask the question when we come to make a decision – I am doing this to serve and protect my team, or am I doing it to serve and protect my own position? It really is that simple. In your heart of heart, you will know the truth of this question.
If you have found this article useful then please share it with someone you believe is making a positive difference – even that simple action can help us to grow our belief that better is available.
Notes in this article have been taken from Harvard Business Review – What Good Leadership Looks like through this pandemic (Michaela J Kerrissey / Amy Edmondson)