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  • Jane Porter

Imperfect Leadership

April 2022

We are in unprecedented times of crisis and the rules of leadership are being re-written daily, how are you responding?

Employees, teams, organisations and whole industries are experiencing uncertainty like never before. Direction is needed, and decision making needs to be quick and impactful, and the new rules of play are not well understood.

In many ways society is mourning. Mourning what was known, and fearful of what might be ahead. The Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle (1969) suggests that before we reach a place of acceptance, and start to move forward, we experience strong emotions which may include anger, denial, confusion, anxiety and overwhelm.

As I experience and observe these emotions in organisational contexts I am wondering about the following: -

1.    We are in unprecedented times; we’ve never been here before, do existing models of great leadership and leading in a crisis even apply or do we need to discover new ones?

2.    There is a strong narrative of judgement and criticism from the sidelines of how organisational and society leaders are behaving and making decisions.

3.    There is a decreasing level of human compassion for others and an increase in focus on self (and how much toilet paper one can hoard!).

We are seeing some great examples of leadership, and indeed many examples of imperfect leadership which is not surprising given that for most leaders, this is a first-time experience. Our responses to imperfect leadership, however are interesting. I’m observing (and have caught myself engaging in) behaviour that resembles the crowd on the sidelines of the sporting match, shouting at the referee, telling them how to do their job properly.

I don’t believe the decisions and behaviours we are seeing are all examples of exemplary leadership – some things are absolutely challenging my values and yes, I’ve yelled my advice at the TV once or twice in recent weeks – yet I do believe that our leaders are for the most part doing the best they can in an environment that is new for every human being and leader on the planet.

If we look at what the globe is experiencing through the eyes of systems ecologist C.S. Holling’s Holling Cycle (1986) we are experiencing a period of release at almost every level of society. Release is about capacity to survive, and comes with the need to improvise and survive under extreme disturbance. In this environment networks and relationships are key to maintaining vital functions. New and emergent leadership can surface at this time which will come with inexperience of leading through times of extreme disturbance.

If we follow the Holling Cycle after release comes re-organisation, where systems find capacity to renew, learn, reorient and move forward in different ways. There is no fixed term on how long this can take but in order to get there it requires input from all parts of the system. That’s the interesting thing about systems, we are all part of the same whole on some level.

If we work on the premise that we are all part of the same whole then we all have a role to play in leading ourselves and others through this crisis and each of us will make imperfect choices.

We are already starting to see the seeds of re-organisation emerge in just about everything we do. I believe if we can hold each other and our leaders with compassion at this time this will provide some of the sustenance needed for these seeds to grow.


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