COVID-19: A complex problem that pushes us to lead businesses and organizations from a systemic focus
Today more than ever, the social system requires decentralized, flexible and evolutionary leadership. This leadership has the most potential to sustain and maintain businesses and organizations afloat both during this global health crisis and after the pandemic.
By: Wendy Matamoros, FCAM
It is 2pm in Nicaragua and 3pm in Texas. Virginia Lacayo* asks me for a few minutes to go grab a glass of water because she just finished a Zoom meeting about her program “Managing Emotions and Developing Resiliency for Leaders.” Since the COVID-19 health crisis began in January, she has been dedicating a large part of her time to accompanying private sector, non-profit and academic leaders throughout Latin America and the United States in transitioning towards a style of systemic virtual leadership, participatory facilitation processes online, the development of emotional intelligence in the framework of a crisis, and strategic thought for executive teams.
Why prioritize these issues, in these moments of global and local crisis?
What happened with COVID-19 is that a major part of businesses and organizations were focused on the implications that the pandemic would have for our health, but they did not have the same outlook on the implications it would have for organizational culture.
The pandemic caught them unprepared for remote working and unaware that technology would become an element for survival, even though the digital divide has been emphasized more than ever.
Technology is forcing the decentralization of decision-making, of work processes, of executive processes, of production processes. Work is being done in micro-units and from a distance. Furthermore, organizations and businesses are being led from homes, while everyone is dealing with their domestic reality at the same time.
Today more than ever, traditional (pyramid) leadership skills do not square with the realities that we are facing. One of the biggest challenges that leaders have is decentralizing authority, and as a result, responsibility.
How can their organizations and businesses achieve the results they need to reach? By distributing decisions more equitably, so that everything does not fall on the shoulders of one leader, because such complex organizations in such complex times, cannot be led by only one person or a small group of people.
Leaders see the need to take advantage of the resources they have access to (human teams) so that together they can look for ways to respond to complex problems and think about how to take competitive advantage of the situation, how to move forward with their work, how to support their interest groups, how to contribute so that the market does not collapse, and so that the business or the organization does not collapse. Thinking of all of this is no longer the role of just one person.
We are living in a critical moment in our history, in which the leadership pyramid is being shaken up by a new context that pushes us to develop other forms of leadership, where decentralization is key, where flexibility is necessary in order to adapt to these changes and to find solutions to complex problems. In what ways is this historic moment the ideal moment to change perspective, integrating a systemic focus based on complexity science?
If we think of the pandemic globally and not from a health point of view, COVID-19 is a complex problem. There is no precedent. All of the previous pandemics have some common elements, but this is completely new. We have never had a pandemic in this kind of context, with the social networks we have now, with the level of decentralization we have now, with the globalization we have now, with the level of dependence on technology that we have now, with the access to technology that we have now. There is no precedent when we see all of this together.
COVID-19 is uncontrollable – up to this point we have not been able to control the pandemic – it is unpredictable, because what we thought we knew is changing every day. There is too much uncertainty and in the midst of that we have to continue with things that do not stop: our daily lives, our relationships, we have to keep businesses and organizations alive, we have to continue sustaining our communities, economies and different social systems.
Complex problems overwhelm our individual capacity to see the global picture. In this sense, individual leadership no longer works. Coronavirus will eventually pass, but the problem does not stop with a vaccine, the problem does not stop with the cure, the problem already brought about worldwide change. It changed dynamics so much, it had such an impact on countries’ economies, on human interactions, on our relationship with technology, that we are now facing a new reality that we have not clearly distinguished.
We are only just beginning to identify the behavior patterns of the system (the way in which the world is behaving following the blow of the virus) and this is the truly complicated situation that we have to confront as leaders. When coronavirus passes over, first we will have to have survived it (not only physically in terms of our health, but also as an economy, as a society) and later on we will not return to what we were, we cannot become the same people that we were before. As leaders we have to begin to think now about the new normal that is developing and evolving, but things will never be the same again.
In this case, the current crisis demands of us an evolving form of leadership that identifies what works and what does not work through experimentation, trial and error. It comprehends that we are not the only influence in this situation, but that there are many things that have influence and as a result, it is necessary to involve each of those things that are influencing elements to see distinct perspectives. When a complex situation is seen for what it is – a complex situation – all of the elements of a system are involved to find a viable solution.
When something drives us to change, we often encounter resistance. In this moment, I try to imagine myself as an organization, like a company, like a small business, a corporation, an entrepreneur, a government, and I think: when all of this is over we will return to “normalcy,” nevertheless, things today are not what they were before. What would it mean to return to doing and being the same as before? What are the risks of this perspective?
Leaders that think that they can return to a pre-COVID 19 reality are ignoring how what we are going through is also impacting them directly. They cannot expect that if we as people are changing, that the business or the organization will remain the same. The product that they make might be the same, the service they provide could be the same, but the people that make it possible are no longer the same. There are many people suffering from post-traumatic and pre-traumatic stress, loss of loved ones and radical life changes. In many ways, our staff is going to be unrecognizable.
In the face of this new reality, the leadership that we had will no longer serve us. We need to form a new style of leadership that adapts to the current level of complexity and that which is yet to come, that is sufficiently flexible, such that whatever comes next (which we do not yet know), we can surf through it like a surfer rides the waves.
A surfer does not know what kind of wave is coming. A surfer does not have any control over the wave. But a surfer knows how to ride their board and stay balanced. They know how to ride the board without falling and jump onto whatever comes their way on the wave, and then ride it to the shore. A surfer does not worry about controlling the wave, they do not stress about controlling the wave, the surfer focuses on their technique, on what they can control: their body, their board and their surfing ability.
What a businessperson or a social leader has under their control is their leadership style, their own skills, control over their mind and over their emotions. This allows them to always maintain perspective and a strategic perspective, to have vision and maintain the mission in order to be attentive to the changes that are coming and not blind themselves to them.
How does this new leadership relate to working in alliances? I mention alliances because the global and complex problems require combined, organized and inter-disciplinary efforts with an intersectoral focus.
An opportunity that our societies have in this moment is that everything has yet to be invented, everything is yet to be responded to, there are way more questions than answers, there are so many things that we cannot predict. This pandemic put all of us, in some way, on the same level, because everyone is living in uncertainty or some level of uncertainty. That puts us at a level as peers that we have not experienced in a long time. The only thing that is universal is uncertainty.
From a systemic perspective, this is an advantage for the system: if we are all asking the same questions, we need all of the other responses. We need multiple perspectives and multiple simultaneous experiences in order to find solutions to this complex problem.
Never before in the history of humankind have we had the level of interdependence that we have now: with the environment, with other people, with the economy. We now see how everything affects and is affected by everything else with more clarity.
With the high number of social actors that you have been interacting with intensively in response to the COVID-19 crisis, what common opportunities have you seen, and what are the main challenges?
What I have found in common are the main challenges. Regardless of the type of sector they belong to, they are having to deal with leading from a distance and they are feeling that there is more loss and less utilization of resources by not knowing how to do it and how to manage them. They do not know how to lead from a distance and take full advantage of their system (business, organization or community). They also do not know how to maximize resources and how to identify resources that they had not seen before.
Many leaders do not clearly understand that the only form of survival is decentralizing leadership so that the system can take on the problem in its entirety. What we need to do as leaders is first learn to get our heads above water while we are under the wave, to catch air and later learn how to surf and ride the wave. But while we develop these abilities, we need to delegate, we need to distribute responsibility for the survival of the company and the organization, and of society overall.
How is decentralization defined in concrete terms?
It means involving everyone in thinking how we are going to overcome the challenge that we are facing. This is no longer something that is up to one leader, because there is no capacity. This is not a matter of humility; it is a matter of strategy that comes across as humility. A good leader is someone that moves their business or organization forward, not someone who stands out. A good leader is not someone that has all the answers, but who knows how to ask the best questions and knows who to ask them of.
About the interviewee:
* Virginia Lacayo is the chair of the Board of Directors of FCAM. She is an executive and team coach certified by the INCAE Business School (Costa Rica) and S.U.N. (Success Unlimited Network, London). She is certified as a Personal Coach by The Life Coaching School (U.S.A.). She has a doctorate and master’s degree in Communication with an emphasis on individual and collective behavior change from Ohio University, and she has over 20 years of experience on issues related to leadership in complex and uncertain contexts. She has worked as an executive coach, consultant, researcher, conference keynote speaker, facilitator, and academic with leaders and development projects in Latin America, United States, Africa, Southeast Asia and Europe. Her methodologies combine Coaching, Neuroplasticity, Liberating Structures, Design Thinking and theories and methodologies based on Complexity Science and Systemic Thinking.