Leaders Facing the Unknown: Part 1
One year ago, no one could have predicted today’s business environment. Unless a person was prescient and capable of seeing the future, all signs pointed to an economy with growth trends in a positive trajectory. Successful businesses navigated the economic waters, managing their economic, social and visionary powers into business growth and advancement opportunities.
It was a world whose post-industrial engine had maximized its potential. Margins were slim, requiring skilled leadership to gain any advantage over competitors. Organizations argued which types of leadership were best: inspiration over aspirational over instrumental. The announcement of a novel virus in China barely caught anyone’s attention in December 2019. Such inattention would completely change by mid-March 2020.
Small businesses used to define America’s economy. An estimated 100,000 small businesses will close forever as a result of the coronavirus. A May survey by the National Bureau of Economic Research reported that as much as 2% of small businesses are gone. The restaurant industry has already lost 3% of its businesses.
The apocryphal statement, “May you live in interesting times” has never been more terrifying. We have gone from a world comfortably understandable to a business environment the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. No one under 100 years of age has any idea of what may be the final result of enterprise efforts while the world waits for mass vaccination.
This is the new normal
We are experiencing a tectonic transformation of the business world that will undermine the confidence of everyone who works at every level of the organization. This transformation could mean the end of tens of thousands of businesses that functioned under the industrial-age business paradigm of utilizing massive human resources, coordinated resources from multiple supply chains and connecting to talent worldwide. Survival will lie in redefining what it means to be in business — therein lies the challenge of the modern leader.
If you are a leader in this world, you must embrace the idea. There is no going back to normal; there is only forward. Trends from the past will no longer provide you with a means of preparing sufficiently; this is a moment when leadership becomes critical.
Leadership is the process of social influence that can maximize a team’s capacity towards achieving a recognizable goal, turning your vision into tangible, effective action. There is no one path to this leadership, and with the collapse of the business infrastructure taking place today, you will have to make decisions no one has had to make in nearly 100 years.
The science is clear
What are the first choices we have to consider? Are there decisions a leader can make right now to prepare an organization to survive the challenges ahead? Absolutely. However, they will require clarity, adaptability, communication, a willingness to innovate and giving your staff the capacity to experiment and take risks.
We must recognize the science behind this phenomenon. The rollout of vaccinations has been met with numerous hiccups. Small business can no longer afford to wait by the sidelines as these vaccinations are distributed. That means you will have to change your business to deal with the challenges of a workforce that cannot meet in the flesh without precautions.
Depending on where you live, shelter-in-place restrictions may not allow you to meet in public at all. A more realistic timeline for a viable full vaccine rollout would not be until the middle of 2021 at the earliest. Even if it did work, it will still be quite some time before enough vaccine could be available to distribute worldwide, making this one of the most extensive distributions and vaccination efforts in the world’s history.Related: COVID-19 Vaccination: The Logistical Challenge
How can business leaders motivate, guide and prepare their team for a world unlike anything we have known since the beginning of the Industrial Age? The role of leaders today can be transformative, groundbreaking and, if mishandled, catastrophic. You must prepare your team for the long haul. They will have to consider work differently than they ever have before. They will need to become more invested in your business’s organizational development because, at some level, they will need to be thinking like leaders, making decisions from remote locations, often without the ease and comfort of close physical interaction daily.
The way we performed the art of businesses in the past may be over. The commerce of the future will need to be more nimble, more flexible, requiring more diverse and adaptable employees who are capable of innovation, iteration, experimentation and collaboration. Our supply chains may need more significant variation and more local implementation. Tomorrow’s leadership will have to be smarter, more visionary, able to consider a more expansive worldview in its scope and be willing to imagine the impossible daily.