Embrace (and Expect) the Clutch

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Think of the current economic crisis in terms of an acute myocardial infarction. The patient is rushed to the hospital, where he is stabilized and recanalized, but it is not over (it is never over), as thoughts turn to preventing the next attack and the patient initiates a lifetime gambit to alter lifestyle patterns. This is the premise of Heifetz et al¹ in an article that appeared in the July–August 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review. In “Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis,” the authors write that intensifying global competition, energy constraints, climate change, and political instability will set the stage for a prolonged, and possibly permanent, sequence of critical new challenges; leading during a sustained crisis is treacherous. The authors divide crisis leadership into two phases, and they spend scant time on the emergency phase, in which the leader’s priorities are to stabilize and buy time. “Second is the adaptive phase, when you tackle the underlying causes of the crisis and build the capacity to thrive in a new reality,” they write. Because leaders will feel tremendous pressure to relieve anxieties by reacting with authoritative certainty, this is the tricky stage. The way forward is not obvious, yet the leader still must lead. Ignore the instinct to hunker down and solve the problem with short-term fixes such as tightened controls, across-the-board cuts, and restructuring plans, the authors urge readers. “The organizational adaptability required to meet a relentless succession of challenges is beyond anyone’s current expertise,” they write. Invite Change Today’s leadership challenge is to execute current business while simultaneously fostering change, which the authors describe as developing next practices. A great example of this is the influence of Julie Gilbert, former vice president and then senior vice president at Best Buy from 2000 to 2009. Gilbert perceived a coming disaster in the company’s failure to recognize the growing influence of women in consumer-electronics buying and failure to include them in the purchase. She led an initiative to develop in-store boutiques that mixed home-theater components with furniture and accessories, reoriented the sales force to include the female when a man and a women entered together, persuaded senior executives always to include a woman in strategic decision making, and created Women’s Leadership Forums, or WoLF, in which women at all employment levels came together to collaborate on new initiatives. Gilbert has since moved on to help other companies set up like programs, but while at Best Buy, she embodied the practices of adaptive leadership: confronting loyalty to the legacy practice of selling products to men; distinguishing the essential from the expendable in urging the inclusion of at least one woman in ritual senior-leadership retreats; and running numerous experiments in order to ferret out better products and processes, as opposed to giving slavish attention to a grand plan. An Off-kilter Environment The authors recognize that health care is a microcosm of the turmoil facing the entire economy, and they put forth Paul Levy, CEO, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, Massachusetts, as a prime example of a leader who successfully orchestrates conflict, chaos, and confusion so that the turbulence is productive instead of destructive. Beth Israel was on the ropes when Levy took over in 2002. The product of a merger between two Harvard teaching hospitals, the medical center never fully integrated the two cultures, was bleeding red ink, and was a likely target of a takeover by a nonprofit entity. After stabilizing the financial situation, Levy set about creating discomfort. In a hospital-wide memo, he stated, in no uncertain terms, that the status quo would result in disaster. He publicly challenged powerful medical factions in the hospital, and he announced a zero-tolerance policy for clashes between the two cultures. While Levy achieved some stability from initial achievements, he knew that he had to keep the heat on so that the hospital would be positioned to adapt to the changes that lay ahead. “Keeping an organization in a productive zone of disequilibrium is a delicate task; in the practice of leadership, you must keep your hand on the thermostat,” the authors write. If the heat is too low, people will not feel the need to ask uncomfortable questions or make difficult decisions; if it’s too high, people may panic or freeze. In order to achieve the right level of disequilibrium, leaders must depersonalize conflict by focusing disagreement on the issues, not the interested parties; must act politically, as well as analytically, to understand the interests, fears, aspirations, and loyalties of the factions involved; and must create a culture of courageous conversations, in which difficult topics must be discussed and dissent encouraged. Create Leadership Rather than emanating from the executive suite, corporate adaptability usually results from the accumulation of small changes that occur as responses to many microenvironments throughout the company. “It is an illusion to expect that an executive team on its own will find the best way into the future,” the authors write. The authors challenge leaders to distribute leadership responsibility by replacing formal hierarchy and formal authority with “organizational bandwidth that draws on collective intelligence.” They add, “To distribute leadership responsibility more broadly, you need to mobilize everyone to generate solutions by increasing the information flow that allows people across the organization to make independent decisions and share the lessons they learn from innovative efforts.” Be careful to be as inclusive as your organization is diverse, which is easier said than done. If you do not include all perspectives, including those of young people, you risk missing the nuances of the shifting reality. Creating such an environment may involve relinquishing both authority and ownership. The New Leadership Coda Authoritative certainty is the trap that leaders must resist, or they risk a return to precrisis leadership mode. In addition to managing adaptive responses within the organization, leaders must keep close tabs on their own thinking and emotions (a task that will test the leader’s limits). To be successful in this endeavor, leaders must take great physical and emotional care of themselves. The authors advise leaders to:
  • practice optimism and realism,
  • find sanctuaries that enable them to recalibrate internal responses,
  • reach out to confidants outside the organization,
  • bring their emotional selves to the workplace, and
  • maintain the self outside the workplace.
“Adaptive leadership is a daily opportunity to mobilize the resources of people to thrive in a changing and challenging world,” the writers conclude.