Note from Art: A version of this article appeared originally at SmartBrief on Leadership.
For hundreds of years, individuals known as alchemists searched in vain for the mythical Philosopher’s Stone, a substance that was imagined to have the properties essential for turning basic medals into gold or generating the elixir of immortal life. Today’s equivalent search is for that one leadership style capable of turning crisis into survival and then prosperity.
Much like the alchemist’s search, discovering the “just right” leadership style in today’s maelstrom of issues and wicked problems is elusive. Yet, for those striving to lead successfully, there is hope, and it comes in the form of a blended, adaptive model of leading. When mixed in the right proportions for the situation, the properties of leading we describe as wartime, servant, and resilient prove capable of transmuting crisis into hope and progress.
Exploring Three Styles of Leading
1. The Wartime Leader
The wartime leader in our organizations is driven by the need to fend off existential threats.
This leader generates a laser focus on the mission and draws upon the Commander’s Intent to provide clarity and acting parameters.
Short-term sacrifices are made to improve the odds of success for the whole, and communication, feedback, and learning operate at hyper-speed.
The wartime leader is working the clock and pushing people and teams to do the impossible with the resources available. This individual leads through purpose focused on a specific adversary.
2. The Resilient Leader
In my article, Toward a New Style of Leadership—Leading for Resilience, in SmartBrief on Leadership, I defined leading for resilience as “making the strategic, structural, operational, and talent decisions that enable organizations to survive a shock and sustain their mission.”
The resilient leader focuses on a longer time horizon than the wartime leader and is continually working to see around corners and identify emerging opportunities and threats.
This leader inspires individuals to think differently and experiment to find “next” for the business.
3. The Servant Leader
The servant-leader is all about vanquishing fear and reducing the organizational friction that gets in the way of people doing their jobs. The focus is on eliminating bureaucratic bottlenecks and streamlining decision-making in pursuit of a better future.
The servant leader’s hallmark is empathy focused on meeting people where they are at and offering them the support of a healthy working environment where they are motivated to chase their potential.
While the term “servant” might connote weak leader to some, the reality is this leader is the strongest of the three types, striving to lift the organization through and with people constantly.
What’s the Right Leadership Approach for This Era?
We’re fighting a multi-front war in our organizations as we strive to keep our workforces engaged, make sense out of situations so we can reinvent and ultimately survive. Many leaders have adopted a wartime posture, which makes sense. However, it’s not sustainable and not enough for what’s in front of us.
As some new definition of normal emerges—hopefully, driven by a vaccine—the wartime footing must give way to the effort of designing our organizations for “next.” The resilient leader is looking for new opportunities in a re-emerging but different world while simultaneously rethinking and investing in creating business models that hedge against future disruptions.
And then there are the people—the caregivers, medical providers, and everyone else in every organization shell-shocked from the sudden, adverse change from the world we knew to one that is on a good day frightening. The same leader above who is leading the wartime charge and designing the organization for resilience against future challenges, must do the most important job of all and regain the creativity and ingenuity of the people. Enter the servant leader.
Three Styles, One Leader, Is This Possible?
My answer to whether this blended, adaptive leadership style is possible is a qualified “Yes, but it’s not easy.” I’ve seen examples in my community with small business owners that transformed their businesses and in organizational leaders doing the same across various private and public institutions. Their success in leading in the crisis while building for the future and keeping their colleagues engaged and inspired gives me hope. However, we need to manifest this blended, adaptive leadership approach at scale across all sectors of society.
The Bottom-Line for Now
We’re playing tridimensional chess where pieces move horizontally and vertically on multiple levels in our world today. The leader who brings the emotional intelligence and mental acuity to adjust and adapt their style on-the-fly based on the needs of the people and organization is one we desperately need. Unfortunately, there is no Philosopher’s Stone for developing leaders or turning crises into prosperity. This is going to be hard.