There are many definitions of leadership and countless books on the subject that try to formulate what makes an effective leader. Although we sometimes find it hard to articulate, we instinctively know when we are in the presence of an effective leader. As very complex social animals, living in very complex societies, we have strong conscious and subconscious desires to be led and a deep understanding of what that requires. In times of crisis this basic human need becomes even more critical for our mental wellbeing and the effectiveness of our teams.
We will judge our leaders during this crisis but we will judge them more on how they make us feel than on if they have made the right decisions. In fact we may never know if their decisions were right, such is the complexity of this crisis. Their most important role during the crisis is to be present and reassuring. It has become fashionable for leaders to devolve decision making all together, to hide behind the science, or data, or to delegate decisions to a wider leadership group. Management consultants will tell you that the charismatic leader is not the best model, that what you need from a leader is a facilitator who empowers his generals, not a warrior leading from the front, but in times of crisis I think this is wrong.
We need to see a warrior leading from the front and most of all we need to see a leader exercising judgement and making decisions. The science, facts and data are all vital tools to help leaders make decisions but in an imperfect world we can’t rely on them. There are just too many variables and the data is always incomplete. That’s why we have leaders not algorithms.
Effective leaders need wide ranging experience; they need to have fed their subconscious over many decades to create a powerful decision making brain. Science has so far only developed a superficial understanding of our powerful subconscious, but most neuroscientists agree that the subconscious is where we make decisions, not in our conscious brain which merely acknowledges the decisions. Think of the batsman at the crease facing the fast bowler, he or she has to weigh up in a fraction of a second all the tiny visual and non-visual clues from their memory about what type of delivery will be bowled, the position of the fielders, the state of the game, their form and the form of their batting partner and many other variables before he or she even starts to think about the complex movements required to execute the right shot. This is not a conscious decision making process.
Despite massive advances in AI, no computer can match the ability of the human subconscious to weigh up all the variables of information, values and culture and balance the needs of the organisation, the individual and of society to make the big judgement calls. And no algorithm or committee can articulate that judgement into a powerful rallying call to motivate people to be better than they thought they could be.
In a few weeks when we have navigated our way through the darkest part of this journey take stock. Think about your leaders and what they did. Did they lead from the front? Did they set an example by making a real sacrifice, and remember 50% off of a six-figure salary isn’t the same sacrifice as taking 50% off someone on the minimum wage. Did they demonstrate their integrity and live by the values and culture of the organisation? Did they share their vison and motivate you through the hard times? Did they care for you and make you believe that you and your organisation could come back better and stronger? If the answer is no, you owe it to yourself to work for a better leader.