Year 2020 will be remembered for a long time as the year that challenged many of our established ideas, beliefs and certainties. The year in which the best of our formulae—for success, happiness, effectiveness—were found wanting. More than halfway through the year, we have far more questions than answers.
The COVID crisis is dictating a new normal to all. Whether it is in the space of healthcare, governance, education, national economies, crisis response, finance, community work or just managing one’s daily life, everything has changed overnight. It is quite likely that there is no going back to the old and familiar ways of doing things and responding to situations.
The pandemic has, like never before, forced us to confront some of the realities of human life: our priorities, our vulnerability, the importance of the health of the planet, the interconnectedness of people and, importantly, the inevitability of death itself.
Within public life, organizations, communities and in our personal spaces, it will take an extraordinary kind of leadership to help us navigate these times. The solutions are unlikely to be available within the traditional framework and understanding of leadership, which fundamentally revolves around looking to one person, the so-called ‘leader. ‘
The pandemic has created an opportunity to examine our idea of leadership from an issue-centric perspective rather than a people-centric one. This new kind of leadership – let’s call it emergent leadership – turns the focus away from externalities and the ability to influence or control events and people outside of us to a more reflective space, from an individualistic paradigm to a collective one, opening up limitless opportunities to take humanity towards a better world.
Emergent leadership sets itself apart from traditional ideas and practice of leadership in several ways:
It changes how we look at ourselves and others: We stop seeing ourselves as the only source of solutions to problems. We truly believe in the power, wisdom and knowledge residing in people around us and are willing to learn from everyone.
How we perceive learning also changes, because the focus shifts from what we already know to what we need to know at a given point of time—and that new learning can come from anyone around us. It also teaches us to operate with a respect for technical expertise without being blinded by it, thus opening up a world of resources to learn from.
It teaches us to practice collaboration: At the core of emergent leadership is the honest acknowledgement that no one person can solve anything effectively—and that solutions to complex problems cannot be created in silos. It requires systems thinking and collaborative work. Rather than collective leadership, this calls for distributed leadership. Leadership will now be distributed based on the reflective abilities, technical competence, operational context and a person’s desire to engage in addressing the issue. It will not just be distributed across several individuals at any given point of time, but also across the same individual who will need to express his leadership at different points of time.
In such a context, the leader becomes a convener and coordinator in the process of finding system-driven solutions (in a system where boundaries between sub-systems are blurred); their job is to bring together people, rally them around a common cause and inspire them to work on the problem in collaboration with others.
Leaders must also learn to operate in a world that keeps finding newer ways to polarize people. As different forces work hard at polarizing people, this new leadership will have the courage to stand up against these forces and pull people away from them. It will need people who seek to find similarities and work on it rather than exploit the differences that are readily evident amongst individuals and Institutions.
It requires a deep connection with the Self: Practicing emergent leadership calls foradeepsenseofhumility and a true acceptance of one’s vulnerability and inadequacies. In accepting one’s vulnerability one creates the opportunity to use that moment to explore and discover one’s true inner strength.
The more one is willing to embrace the chaos, disequilibrium and uncertainty within oneself, the more one is able to cope with the same conditions in the external world. It is about coming to terms with one’s insecurities but staying grounded in one’s response to the opposites.
Subsuming one’s ego and seeing a connection between the Self and the Other is critical to this kind of leadership. Emergent leadership moves towards a paradigm that involves a more evolved understanding of the Self, the Other and the interconnectedness in that relationship.
It redefines how we communicate: The newidea of leadership will require a careful examination of one’s language and expression. A leader will have to develop the ability to communicate loss without creating panic or getting marginalized, convey humility without sounding despondent, and voice the desire to learn without sounding ignorant.
It redefines how we build relationships: Working incollaboration, at the system level and embracing oneself and others will necessarily mean that relationships are no longer transactional. In the new leadership paradigm, relationships will need to be built on a mutual sense of appreciation, respect and acceptance, demonstrating a true willingness and ability to reach out to and take along even people one is not in agreement with. It will be as much about inspiring as it will be about getting inspired, regardless of which level of hierarchy that inspiration comes from.
Finally, it redefines success itself: When one creates a new way of working and building relationships, one starts to appreciate the means more than the end; the journey becomes as important, if not more, as the destination. Success stops being defined merely as achieving a task successfully but expands to include the essence of how it is achieved. Viewed this way, it also does away with the need for ownership of an idea or the credit of success, liberating leaders and everyone involved in the process from the limiting world of competition and self-interest, to collaboration and oneness.
This kind of leadership is critical now more than ever if we have to prepare ourselves for the new world, redefining what compassion, courage and spirit of service will mean from now on.