Leadership in a time of crisis

Signed a new book contract this week, a book with a difference and hopefully a book that will make a difference. Right from the beginning of the pandemic, I was determined that something good had to come out of this, something positive to take forward once the virus finally relaxes its grip. Being a writer, the first thing I thought of was to write something. But I knew this wasn’t just down to me. 

At the University of Exeter Business School I am fortunate to have a peer group, the Fellows of the Exeter Centre for Leadership, who had very much the same idea as myself; how can we make a difference? Within a few weeks of the first lockdown we were already putting our heads together and planning the book, and now we have a green light and are going forward. The book will be published by Routledge, probably in the autumn of 2021. The book will be a collection of essays on leadership, some of them high-level and general, some focusing on particular regions or sectors. We have contributors with backgrounds in business, charities, education, the armed forces, politics, the arts and healthcare, from Europe, India, Africa and North America, from established scholars and from younger people at the beginning of their own leadership journeys. 

The single idea that draws all these diverse contributors together is to challenge conventional ideas about leadership. The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a harsh spotlight not just on the leaders of organisations, but on the concept of leadership itself and the way we lead. Many of those who were in positions of power before the crisis have been found wanting; too often, our idols have turned out to have feet of clay. 

As Warren Buffet famously said, when the tide goes out, that’s when you find out who has been swimming naked. Quite a few of our traditional leaders are standing before us now in their birthday suits, petrified and trembling as they await their fates. The organisations and societies they have been leading are unlikely to forget or forgive. 

But does the problem lie with the leaders themselves? Or do the roots of the problem lie deeper? Do we need to start rethinking and reimagining the kind of leadership we will need in a post-Covid world?  We believe we do. 

The focus of the book, then, is on what we need to change in order to make leadership fit for purpose in the twenty-first century. We argue for a fundamental rethinking of the concept of power and a recognition that leaders can emerge from anywhere in society; even that ‘leading’ may be possible without ‘leaders’ being present. We argue also that concepts such as kindness, fairness and a genuine care for the well-being of others need to be central to leadership; leaders need to care about those they lead, rather than seeing them as a means to an end. Ultimately, successful leadership is something that is done ‘for’ people and ‘with’ them rather than ‘to’ them. 

That is only the tip of the iceberg, but I thought I would share this project and see if other people are thinking along the same lines. This is without doubt the most exciting leadership book I have ever had the privilege of being involved with, and I cannot wait to see it in print.