Leadership is getting the big calls right and sending the right signals

Many people in leadership and management roles can go through their whole careers without making much of a difference. The organisation was normally there before them and it is usually there after they’ve gone, often in much the same market position. Most careers have perhaps three or four big moments where the decisions really matter. These are often around a major market opportunity or technological change or M&A. The post-COVID period is one of those key career and organisation defining moments.

Political careers are often defined by these key moments. Tony Blair will forever be defined by his support for the invasion of Iraq, despite his support for more successful interventions in Bosnia and Northern Ireland. David Cameron will forever be known as the Prime Minister that paved the way for the UK to leave the European Union rather his previous multiple electoral successes. Nick Clegg is the man who broke his promise to students, rather than being acknowledged for his role in enabling a relatively successful post-financial crash Coalition Government.

What can today’s leaders learn from these moments and how can they give themselves the best chance of making the right big decisions?

I have four current thoughts on the subject:

  1. We don’t need to be told again that these times are unprecedented, so it is understandable for everyone responsible for major decisions to seek help. This is a time for collaborative senior leadership teams and judicious use of external advisers. It is not a time for reclusive managers taking decisions in private.
  2. This could, however, be a major opportunity for significant and successful change. This crisis should not be wasted and many organisations will be able to make changes in a matter of months that would otherwise have taken several years. So this is a time for significant, open-minded strategic review.
  3. As organisations need to take their employees with them during these times of change, it is vital that people believe in their employer. The organisation needs to have a clear purpose and live it – and management decisions need to make sense within the corporate story, internally as well as externally.
  4. An organisation needs to understand the importance of trust and reputation – and send the right signals in the visible day-to-day decisions it takes. In the current environment it is particularly important what an organisation says and does about the three major issues facing society: inequality (particularly people of colour, gender and wealth of background); climate change and the post-COVID economy (particularly those sectors and regions that are struggling).

On the latter point, the current UK Government is a living example of how to needlessly send the wrong signals and it has undermined its own reputation and the trust people have in it. On the one hand, its help for the economy, via the furlough scheme and the various business support packages (including Bounce Back Loans and “eat out to help out”) are superb and widely acknowledged as having kept the country going these past six months.

On the other hand, its responses to so many situations have sent the wrong signals.

The Barnard Castle incident reinforced the idea that the rules don’t apply to the privileged elite. The blaming of Ofqual (and a “mutant algorithm”) for the A-level fiasco showed that it is happy to blame subordinates, whoever in the civil service they are. Its over-zealous claim that it would break international law in the Brexit negotiations, questions whether anyone should obey the rules. The continual rhetoric that its track and trace system is “world beating” reinforces the international perception that the UK is arrogant.

In the long run, will the Government’s reputation be defined by getting the big decisions right or by sending the wrong signals through its day-to-day decisions? I suspect it will be a mixture of the two and that it will be a close call. Those of us facing one of the few defining moments of our careers, should be aware of the same dilemma.

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Tony Langham

Chief Executive and Co-Founder