Chief concern

What do former British Prime Ministers, William Lamb and Winston Churchill, have in common with sentiments from the French National Convention of 1793 and Spiderman’s alter ego, Peter Parker?  

Well, with great sagacity, they have all declared their own version of the now popular internet meme, “With great power comes great responsibility.” When such an idea was first uttered it perhaps marked a shift in appreciation of how those with power should acknowledge the privilege of having it, coupled with the sensitivity required when it came time to wielding it.

Today’s leaders have been made acutely aware of this same principle every single moment of every single day for the last 11 weeks. As we now face the challenge of shifting from React to Respond, those same leaders will continue to be faced with hundreds of difficult decisions that – unusually for many of them – are often accompanied by a truly, life-or-death level of responsibility.  

They won’t ask for your sympathy

The human cost of Covid-19 is acknowledged to be a truly horrendous event by most right-thinking people. The cost to the economy, organisations of all sectors, businesses and employees has also been monumental. And the best leaders of those organisations will have stepped up willingly, accepting that when they signed on the dotted line that added a significant ‘C’ to their job title, it meant more responsibility, more financial rewards, more status. Furthermore, whether Chief Executive Officer, Chief Finance Officer, Chief Risk Officer or any other CXO role, they will all have known that along with the tangible upsides it could mean dealing directly with an existential threat to their business such as was last experienced as recently as 2008. They would have been aware that regardless of how slim the chances, there was a risk they might be called into action, in extremis. And while most (but probably not all) would never have wished for something like this current trial, many will be secretly relishing the chance to test themselves against the unique situation they and their organisations are facing. They recognise they are the chosen few. Risk and Reward come with the territory and as such they won’t ask for your sympathy.

Which is probably just as well because I don’t see much sympathy going around. Unlike 2008 there is little blame to be apportioned in relation to the causes of this pandemic. Certainly not in the direction of organisational leaders at least. And whilst we have rightly shuffled outside on a Thursday evening to show appreciation for the heroic efforts of NHS and care staff; shelf-stackers and delivery drivers; transport workers and teachers and so many more wonderful front line staff, there has been little recognition for the efforts of those leading the infrastructure of society.

Human beings too

It would be reductionist in the extreme to try to capture here why some people are willing to take on the ultimate leadership responsibilities within organisations. Many of them probably couldn’t tell us anyway. When I explore deeper motivations to leading with the leaders themselves, their visceral, unedited responses are typically rooted in wanting to help and making a positive difference. Almost never, in my experience, is it about accessing those more tangible upsides.

What has become clear to me over nearly twenty years of working with senior leaders and their teams, is that whilst many leaders are driven by particular elements of their work, they remain first and foremost, human beings. You know, like most of the rest of us. Warm-blooded. With a pulse. Some of them even have feelings. And although many would not be too keen to show it, limited energy supplies and a fragility it is rarely helpful to expose too frequently – even for those pursuing ‘vulnerable leadership,’ whatever that is!

Thrown into sharp focus during lockdown is that many leaders are balancing parts of being a leader with oh! so obviously being a human: unannounced visits on key Zoom meetings from home-schooled children and unschooled pets; insights into the interior design choices of often typically very private people and exactly what your boss looks like in dress-down mode and after 11 weeks without a decent haircut. And whilst we may get an insight to their humanity, a real concern is that these same leaders maybe driving themselves so hard that they fail to recall their own human nature, in service of helping others and making a difference. The self-awareness many of them show in ‘normal’ times has been hijacked by the stress and complexity of the current situation. To reset, these leaders need distance and a break. They won’t ask for it but peers, HRDs and HRBPs need to be the external prompts here. Ask the difficult questions. Suggest a break. Don’t take no for an answer. For these leaders to lead effectively over the forthcoming weeks and months, looking after themselves will be of critical importance, in order that they can continue to perform their senior leadership roles effectively.