Leadership Will Change Forever After The Coronavirus Pandemic

04/15/2020 06:00AM

Crisis has a way of revealing, course-correcting and recalibrating what leadership really means. We are watching in real time as one submicroscopic virus renders all standards of human hierarchy meaningless.

From British royalty (Prince Charles) to American royalty (Tom Hanks) … anyone is susceptible to COVID-19. The standards that made someone powerful in the past are irrelevant in the present. 

The same is true for leaders in an organization. 

Inevitably, in a crisis, the leaders who have the biggest impact on the most people are rarely the “official” leaders at the top. Rather, people like Dr. Anthony Fauci, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, or a nurse pleading on camera for more supplies start to become the de facto leaders of the moment. They may have leadership positions with titles, but their influence extends beyond their official capacity to become the face of courage for many people – because they reveal an authenticity and urgency that reflects what people are feeling. 

The same might be true within your organization. Anyone still relying on their title to validate their sense of power or control will find out very soon: that title is meaningless. 

We’re witnessing the collapse of the standardization model – the model of leadership based on command and control, hierarchy and silos. The one that defined the measures of success for people, then rewarded only those who met those measures. It was about creating barriers, defining the narrative, putting people in boxes and protecting the establishment.

Standardization creates efficiency, and that was a fine goal in a world where things were predictable. But efficiency is not resilient. Resilience requires adaptability, and adaptability requires the freedom for people to be their most individual selves – to be themselves to the fullest.

We have a powerful visual of this in a literal sense right now. Most of us have been ordered to stay at home. Conjure these two contrasting images in your mind right now:

  • First, a group of 1,000 people all being standardized into “efficiently” moving in one direction and hunkering down together. They can continue to get their work done, because they’re on the same schedule. It’s efficient to keep them sheltered and fed, because they are all doing the same thing, in the same place, following the same rules. And because of that, they are all vulnerable to one small virus. 
  • Second, that same group of 1,000 people dispersed into their own individual homes across a wide geographic area. They can tap their own resources, tend to their own families, create their own schedules, tackle their assignments at their own pace. Things are chaotic, because no one is on the same schedule, no one is doing the same thing at the same time, no one is in the same place. And because of that, they are resilient

This is the age of personalization coming into focus. 

There are elements of standardization still present, showing us how a balance between standardization and personalization can exist. Certainly, the decision to stay home has been made for us. A standard has been set. Also, people in their individual homes are following similar standardized protocols for washing their hands and sanitizing everything they touch. 

But people are also expressing their individuality from their own homes by sharing with the world their humor, their art, their positive messages and, of course, their strong opinions. 

It’s easy for us to visualize these contrasts because we have a literal example in COVID-19 and our social distancing orders. 

But beyond the literal, this also shows us what I’ve been writing about for years now: 

  • Individuality and personalization might appear to be chaotic, and we tend to (mistakenly) think of chaotic as all bad. 
  • Standardization might appear to be efficient, and we tend to (mistakenly) think of efficient as all good. 

We must shift from ruling by standardization to leading with personalization.

We’re All Being Forced into a Massive Reset 

Standardization has finally lost because its limitations have been revealed. This pandemic is giving us a front row seat to the real tensions that exist between the age of standardization and today’s age of personalization. We’re witnessing the collapse of an ideology that believed that transparency, authenticity and vulnerability were weaknesses while secrecy, playing the part and pretending to know the answers were strengths. 

People see right through that false power and confidence.  

We are witnessing the massive limitations, the appalling lack of readiness and the sheer lack of will, fight and grit that leading in the age of standardization brings. 

While it’s incredibly important to have procedures, systems and protocols, people have grown tired of the overly regimented, standardized ways of doing things. This is one of many reasons why standardization fails in the age of “me.” It’s never been about how to standardize what is best for the individual – but rather the other way around.

In standardization, we’re told what to do inside the box we’re given. We’re forced to assimilate for the sake of efficiency. 

But today we see firsthand the dangers of homogeneity. 

  • First of all, it’s false: we’re individuals of incredible variety of expertise, skills and experiences – even if we have the same degrees or roles.   
  • Second, it’s limiting: you can’t survive a reset of this magnitude, as an organization, if you’re not activating and elevating individual capacity of every single one of your employees. 

This is the Time for Courage

Today, in our age of personalization, leadership means being courageous enough to be compassionate, to allow others to influence in their own way, to listen through actions. It’s about being courageous enough to set aside metrics that are no longer relevant, even if that means appearing to fail in the eyes of people who still cling to those metrics. 

Leadership today is about breaking down barriers and giving people the freedom to create previously unseen opportunities to elevate their own capacity and the capacity of the organization. 

The limits of standardization remind us that without strategy, change is merely substitution not evolution. Standardization is the act of practicing substitutional thinking while personalization is the act of practicing evolutionary thinking. 

Especially now that the moment calls for countries and companies the world over to reinvent themselves. This is only possible when we build systems that focus on inclusion and the power of individual capacity.

It’s about mobilizing dignity at scale. 

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This article was originally published on Forbes.com

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