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May 13, 2020

Limitations of Visionary Leadership

This pandemic is the time we must reflect on the prerequisite qualities of a good leader. Vision is no longer the right answer.

Limitations of Visionary Leadership

Covid-19 has certainly left an indelible imprint on our lives. It has, at the same time, called into question the leadership of the world’s governments and threatened the livelihood of businesses of all scales.

In times of crisis such as this, few, if any, businesses can hope to escape unscathed. Many will fail yet some will survive.

The question to consider is how to predict who those survivors will be. In other words, what qualities are required of business leaders in order for their companies to weather this global pandemic?

Vision: the most essential quality of a leader?

What makes a good leader?

“Vision” would be the most common answer from CEOs, middle-managers and students from all sectors, industries, backgrounds and nationalities.

They argue that having a vision allows leaders to offer motivation, inspiration and encouragement to those working with them. It enables the leaders to nudge their team towards a shared goal.

Moreover, a leader with a vision lives and breathes the mission and sees the full potential of the company. They are better fit to utilize resources and maximize their employees’ potential.

That said, few visionary leaders had the foresight to pre-empt the pandemic that has gripped businesses in 2020.

Certainly, all companies have ambitious visions of capturing the market share and creating top-of-mind awareness for their products. But even the most adept leaders will sooner or later face unexpected factors and market conditions that will force them to alter or curb their plans.

In other words, a vision is only a promise of a future. In that future, however, anything can happen.

Factors that force leaders to change company vision range from global healthcare crises and advances in technology to the arrival of new resources and changing market trends.

So if vision is not set in stone, is being a visionary indeed the most prized quality in a leader?

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As we are battling a pandemic with no visible end, we should reevaluate what value we assign to each leadership quality.

Perhaps, the leaders who can survive and weather this pandemic are not the ones with lofty, far-reaching visions. Maybe they are the ones who can focus on the present and set their dreams aside to adapt and find optimal solutions to arising hurdles.

How do leaders show their ability to adapt?

On the 27th of April, the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern announced that the country had ‘eliminated’ the coronavirus and was ready to lift its lockdown. This came at the time when countries such as the United States and Italy failed to show success in curbing the spread and impact of the virus.

Vietnam, a country that shares 1281km of land border with China, had also recorded no coronavirus-related deaths and had decided to gradually ease social distancing.

Observing world leaders who managed the response to the pandemic well, we can draw a few lessons that can be applied to businesses.

1. Readiness to take drastic action

Unexpected crises happen, and businesses must change to adapt. The majority of businesses may need to optimize costs, cut down staff and adjust sales strategies.

Time is precious. Delays, hesitation and fear to fail beget failure.

In 1933, during the Great Depression, the 32nd President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “[There] is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously.” He continues,

There are many ways in which [a situation] can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly.

In business, Nike is a notable example of readiness to take action. Despite retail being one of the hardest-hit industries, Nike saw an increase of more than 30% in its global online sales in the first three months of this year.

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With the closure of its offline stores, Nike pivoted to online sales, expanding its distribution channels and optimizing its social media engagement. Specifically, instead of relying on intermediaries, Nike now directly interacts with consumers through its loyalty and membership program.

Rather than solely selling its products through exclusive distributors, Nike now engages with consumers directly online and has extended its partnership with e-commerce companies such as Amazon and Alibaba to diversify its distribution channels.

2. Clear and honest communication

On the 20th of March, the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern addressed the nation with a covid-19 announcement, “I understand that all of this rapid change creates anxiety and uncertainty, especially when it means changing how we live.” She continues,

That is why today I’m going to set out for you as clearly as possible what you can expect as we continue to fight the virus together.

She then details the four levels of response to the pandemic and what each level entails in terms of government’s actions and citizens’ responsibilities. She also provides reassurance that a press conference will be held every day to keep everyone informed.

The Prime Minister’s transparency in communication has been regarded as the reason why the population of New Zealand strictly abided by the government’s policies.

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Applying this example to a business environment, the task of the leader in a crisis is to provide truthful information, preferably backed by statistics and data, on the difficulties that the business is facing. At the same time, the leader also has to build trust and ease employees’ anxiety by presenting specific measures and plans to overcome said difficulties.

In times of a pandemic, it is normal to experience anxiety.

Leaders should acknowledge this and hear others out with empathy. Leaders should not try to paint a rosy picture of the future when they’re uncertain if that’s in fact the case. They should also fight decision paralysis and refrain from convincing themselves that they’re ‘locked in a stalemate.’

In the worst-case scenario, when lay-offs can’t be avoided, leaders should communicate with honesty and explain their reasons, ensuring employees are given time and space to receive and process the news.

3. Continuous willingness to learn and experiment

There is no certainty in times of crisis; only chaos and ambiguity. To be proactive, leaders need to accept the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all crisis-response manual. They need to focus on the present and be ready to adapt and cope with new circumstances.

Bold leaders must understand that they can make mistakes every step of the way; no solution or idea is certain to be effective or to succeed. The important thing is to be able to pivot when mistakes happen and learn from the mistakes.

Everything can be expressed in a loop: develop an idea – test the idea – if found effective, adjust the idea for optimization and if found ineffective, discard the idea.

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Leaders should communicate their willingness to learn and experiment, so their employees can embrace operational change and be ready for failures or to pivot when the company faces obstacles. Blame-shifting or being frustrated is a waste of time and energy.

On a more positive note, covid-19 has provided an opportunity for businesses to step out of their comfort zones, evaluate their weaknesses and strengths, and optimize their strategy.

What can leaders do to increase their ability to adapt?

The team’s ability to adapt stems from the leader’s ability to demonstrate dependability in the face of a crisis. A leader who has endurance will weather the storms and will be able to cultivate a team with a similar resolve and a hands-on approach to challenges.

Even after the pandemic has run its course, remember that difficulties may persist and unforeseen challenges in the future may still arise. Endurance and ability to improvise will remain key for businesses to excel and prevail.

1. Practice mindfulness

To increase the ability to adapt, leaders should practice mindfulness.

Meditation to cultivate mindfulness helps you focus on the present. You will become more aware of and accept the challenges you face. From there, you will be able to appropriately choose the wisest response to any type of situation.

2. Learn to empathize

Leaders should lead with understanding and empathy. In times of crisis, emotions can get out of hand.

Before making decisions in such difficult circumstances, leaders need more than ever to be able to understand how the situation affects the team’s wellbeing. Decisions should be communicated honestly and effectively.

Leaders should reassure employees that they are not alone, that they will be treated fairly, and that the team needs them and their contribution. That no one can weather a storm alone.

Also, leaders should check in with their teams frequently to optimize their potential and to nudge them towards the shared goal.

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Having a clear vision is of course important. However, it sometimes holds leaders ‘captive,’ imposing limitations and setting unnecessary boundaries. Developing the ability to adapt will ‘free’ leaders to experiment, to tap the team’s full potential and to overcome challenging times with confidence.

As a silver lining, the times of crisis present a golden opportunity for leaders to come out on the other side with a new, evolved skill set and mentality.

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