Here's the thing: We currently live in the time of Covid-19. And new information about Covid-19 is emerging all the time. Infection spread that turns out to be higher and death rates that appear to be lower than originally anticipated and then not. Treatment options that seem promising one minute and not the next. Potential long-term effects that are emerging or potentially related conditions affecting other parts of the population - or turn out to be unrelated.
We're getting to witness scientists, medical doctors and researchers around the world racing to try and make sense of it all, to compile data, analyse information, draw conclusions and give recommendations. We watch companies responding - from shifting their production from car parts to ventilators or others trying to create treatment options or vaccines.
And we are watching the public debate become more and more polarized, fueled by social media and a general crisis of trust in organisations, corporations - and the new media overall.
(If you are feeling yourself affected by the pro and con of lockdown debate and emergent 'explanations' thereof, I can't recommend enough to read Charles Eisenstein's recent essay "The conspiracy myth" for a birds-eye view!)
I don't want to dive more deeply into the exact content of any of this (I'm neither a doctor nor a scientist), but instead 'chunk up' and take a summary view for a moment to talk a bit on what I DO know something about: Leadership.
The summary view is that we're operating in an environment of great uncertainty. An environment of changing science, new information and evidence and constantly shifting territory.
Now, again, there are parallels that can be drawn between Covid-19 and the climate response - except that Covid is playing out in fast forward mode, speeding up the the development and thus - conveniently - making it more visible.
But in the end, if you've been working on climate responses, you have spent years working in uncertain, constantly shifting and evolving territory, with new science, evidence and research coming out all the time and a more or less polarized public debate - except that climate change is more like the slow moving (and fast melting) glaciers than the Covid tsunami wave in terms of speed of development.
So what can we learn from this situation about leading through uncertain times?
Lesson 1: Acting with certainty and going all in
Jacinda Ardern who's leadership style I referenced in a recent article, has shared that a lot of the decisions that were made early on with regard to the New Zealand 'go hard, go early' approach were based on 'instinct' - for lack of anything firm to go by.
Which is fascinating and relates to an unconfirmed story I quite like to share: it's of a military general who is presumed to have been brought in to take charge of a complicated and conflicted situation that had stalled for years due to a scientific stale mate. Scientists had analysed the situation ad nauseam and the arguments pro taking action were as valid as the arguments con. The general, upon assuming his new role, attended the briefing on the situation that summed up 3 years of research work, but, so the tale goes, interrupted the presentation a few minutes in just to say "Do A".
The scientific team was stunned, proceeding to argue how it was impossible for him to even fully grasp the situation at this point. The general responded "It doesn't matter. I have understood that we don't really know. The only way to find out is to take action".
What we've seen from most leaders around the world is making a decision based on best evidence - and instinct. Some have wavered in their commitment to this decision, some have compromised more than others, but all have acted despite having conclusive evidence one way or another. And most of them have, once the decision was made, gone all in to carry it through, at least for the time being.
It was the best one can do at the time - and just as the general predicted - we are finding out what is happening as a consequence as we speak.
Lesson 2: The law of unintended consequences
As the ripple effects of the decisions that were made are taking hold and playing out, leaders are having to respond with support packages and clarifying guidelines, putting out new hot spots where they become apparent while the blame game is running on high.
In our local area here in New Zealand the cases of rheumatic fever in children just spiked - is this a consequence of the lock down measures (imposed by Labour) or the high rates of poverty, bad housing quality and overcrowding (arguably a result of the previous governments' long term policies)? Who is to say? Both mark conditions sine qua non. Was this predictable? Maybe. - It was certainly not intended.
At this point, leaders have to continue to act fast and decisively while staying engaged in the conversation. Pretending unintended consequences are not happening is only going to undermine public trust - the best approach being to align with the evidence as it appears, acknowledge the problem and get onto finding and administering solutions - fast. And be prepared for more unintended consequences to appear over time - in fact, preframe them as much as possible, make the unexpected expected by openly acknowledging their existence and making the community their ally by encouraging them to look out for them with high vigilance - focusing on early detection.
Lesson 3: The power of momentum
This is where it gets REALLY sticky. Because once we've started heading down a particular track, we've set in motion a powerful trajectory - a trajectory of expectation. Now things are getting political. Because what if the constantly changing evidence starts to align and accumulate to show that our early decisions were not 100% on the mark (and, to be real here for a moment - what are the chances???)
We now have created a ton of expectations (and ripple effects) - and have positioned ourselves publicly with a particular course of action. No matter how hard the decision was to 'sell' in the first instance, if we've done anything right the momentum will have shifted and there will be a point in time where it would be easiest to be washed away with the momentum we created and persist with the course.
This stays true while the risk of changing course is greater than the risk of sticking with it. But what if this balance starts to shift? What if evidence is mounting to show that our initial response was, indeed, not ideal?
This exact situation is more often than not what stops leaders from taking decisive action in uncertain situations in the first place - because, what if we found out it was wrong? What if we overreacted? Better to not decide at all? - Let's order some more research instead.
At this point, it's good to remember that military general and the fact that the REASON we decided in the first place was to FIND OUT. Which creates not only a possibility for changing tack later on - it creates up to 50% likelihood.
Yet, our current culture is not particularly well prepared for this. In politics, we have a strong tradition of heads rolling, lost elections and leader resignations in the wake of 'wrong' decisions. It's an almost certain consequence.
Apart from oppositions taking political advantage of situations like this, this is also caused by our human predisposition to look for what is wrong (instead of what's right), our negativity and confirmation biases among others - and the deep seated convenience and simplicity of the drama triangle.
But does this really make a lot of sense? Yes, we want leaders to make the right decisions - but, even more so, shouldn't we want them to detect and CORRECT any wrong decisions as quickly and thoroughly as possible??
From a societal perspective, attaching all-or-nothing consequences to leadership mistakes often leads to a change of leadership - and with it, eliminating all the things that were right about the decision in a knee-jerk reaction, creating a climate of further uncertainty for the short lived satisfaction of 'rightful revenge' and political gain - and often, powerful momentum in the other direction (until this proves to be wrong as well).
The alternative then becomes staying locked into the momentum and continuing with "Option A" despite long having realized that "Option B" "C" or "F" may have been more appropriate. This is a dangerous situation - and will, as evidence mounts, ultimately lead to failure anyway - and even more dire unintended consequences along the way.
So how do we respond as leaders to the power of momentum? How can we revise 'big' decisions made in uncertain times without losing face, public trust and credibility?
Firstly, we have to role model the non-judgement we desire. We can't look for what or who is to blame for neither the uncertainty, lack of information or who should have figured what out earlier. We have to be forgiving to those who advised us, and to ourselves.
We also have to role model CHANGING OUR MINDS. Because, in sustainability leadership at least - isn't that EXACTLY what we're asking others to do, all the time? To shift their world view maybe from one that centers around economic growth to one that includes the well being of all life? - If we can't make it safe to change our mind without severe consequences for our career, status and credibility - how can we expect others to do exactly that!?
And then, we have to act, pivot and respond fast and with the same decisiveness we applied in the first place.
Now, this is a challenging concept in a world of male leadership which values linear and one-directional processes, setting firm goals and not diverting from them all that much. It's a kind of thinking that has come to dominate our culture, society and especially political debate.
And it is yet another opportunity for emergent female leadership qualities to really change the course of the world.
Because, frankly, as a woman - what does it worry me what it was I said 5 minutes ago? - My inner world has probably changed multiple times since - and with it, my state - and my view point.
This is where we can learn to harness the feminine freedom of - changing our minds. It's a culture we can foster and should seek to establish - because of the opportunity for growth, learning and genuine progress it offers.
Yes, we need to take full responsibility for our mistakes and their intended and unintended consequences. And we need to fix them. No doubt. But we must not let that cause us to step down in shame. Remember - we acted TO FIND OUT. And we just did.
The essential ingredient here is the courage to change course, becoming highly adaptable and responsive and communicating liberally throughout. Again, preframes are our friend. Speaking about the possibility of revising our view early on even while we believe we probably won't - setting expectations for reviews early on in the game. Laying out options even if we don't initially choose to take them.
And embracing and promoting our amazing human ability to LEARN.
The power of momentum is something to be harnessed when the time and conditions are right. And it is something to be broken when they are not.
Leadership excellence is to know the difference.
Natalie is a leadership coach, facilitator and speaker. For more information about how to harness influence in sustainability leadership, increase resilience and lead through uncertainty, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.imaginal.co.nz.