Leadership that makes us better

All crises generate narratives featuring victims, heroes and villains. It is not difficult to see who played these roles in the Great Recession. The victims were the middle and working classes, and particularly people evicted for mortgage arrears; the heroes were the families who helped offset the loss of income; and the villains were the banks, business schools and international organizations that made people tighten their belts. It could be argued that this narrative is incorrect (some evidence, for example, suggests that the working class lost more income than the middle class) or biased, but it is undoubtedly the version that most people remember. Since then, expectations and fears have changed, and the political landscape has been transformed. Narratives do not only explain the past, they also influence the future.

It is useful to ask oneself what narrative will emerge from the current crisis because, amongst other reasons, there is still time for us all to write it together and also, because if something similar happened again, our problems would be aggravated. At the moment, the elderly are apparently the main victims; health professionals are the heroes; and the country where the pandemic originated is being singled out by some as the villain. But it is still too early to write this story. Crises can mutate and yesterday’s villains might be tomorrow’s heroes. It is not unthinkable for China to shift from villain to hero. It is also possible that when this health crisis becomes more of an economic crisis, the victims will be the millions of workers who lose their jobs. Who will the villains and heroes be then?

To ensure that history does not repeat itself, companies and their managers must think carefully about the role they want to identify with. They will not want to be victims or necessarily heroes, but should avoid being villains. Crises measure our ability to do more than our everyday obligations, to be better persons and to put our individual interests aside – like those who must carry on working even if this jeopardizes their own health and that of their families. And this is what is expected of leadership: leadership that makes people greater, as companies and society as a whole.

Leadership is not just about being in charge, taking decisions and being a manager. Nor do I believe that the word leadership, which has positive connotations, should be used to extol the achievement of any goal regardless of its contribution to the common good. Leadership means setting an example and therefore ethical criteria. Leaders are persons able to take us beyond our selfishness, weaknesses and complacency to do better things of greater value to society. I would not, for example, use the word leader to describe anyone who exploits a pandemic by hiking the price of essentials during a shortage; or anyone who forces their employees to work round the clock regardless of the health risks involved; or anyone determined to fire as many employees as possible in the shortest space of time; or anyone who sees the crisis as a chance to eliminate competitors.

Against this backdrop, business leadership must always be responsible and charitable in order to safeguard corporate sustainability whilst respecting the legitimate interests of workers, suppliers and customers rather than merely complying with minimum mandatory obligations. Maximizing profits regardless of the cost for society as a whole would make us the villains of a narrative yet to be written. There is no single formula for the leadership we advocate but certain criteria can help us move in the right direction.

We must clearly identify the public assets we feel obliged to protect.

It might be long-term employment (or part of it); or full wages for workers; or not discriminating against customers depending on their financial circumstances; or the solvency of suppliers. Each of these commitments has a cost that must be weighed up in order to decide what we can afford. In this respect, some companies are already closing in order to protect their workers without being obliged to do so, or before being obliged to by law.

It is essential to work with short- and long-term outlooks at the same time.

Temporary measures must be taken to protect ourselves, but what really makes a difference is the ability to anticipate new trends that will be accelerated by this crisis. In the education sector, we are convinced that the crisis will enable us to try out, evaluate and improve alternative learning models that will make us more effective and able to increase the impact of the courses we offer in the future. Our goal is to find a way out of this crisis by taking more and far better action.

We must know the mark we want to leave as leaders

In times of crisis, we must give greater priority to the values ​​that really drive us. But this is no easy task: it calls for courage and wisdom. It is normal to have doubts and be faced by great pressure and conflicts. Leadership, in this context, is about navigating these pressures and, far from finding an ideal solution, taking a reasonable decision that makes a difference.

It has been said that the best political leadership is the one that obtains the biggest reform from the smallest crisis. Business leadership in times of crisis can be described as the leadership able to achieve the best economic results whilst making the greatest positive impact on society. Hopefully, this will be reflected in the narrative arising from this crisis.

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NIGERIAN TRIBUNE

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