In common with many, I have been inspired and enthused by President Barack Obama's early presidential words. He does not shrink from the realities we face – including the current economic meltdown. Whilst his "to do" list is daunting, his words and language demonstrate his conviction to succeed and in doing so offer hope. Though we will monitor long term how his rhetoric will convert into action, it causes me to reflect on the extent to which out of these challenging times we will grow a new form of leadership, not just in the world of high office and government but for our businesses and organisations.
So much has been written about leadership in the 21st century, much good and meaningful. Many of us have sought to apply the principles articulated. Yet despite this we look around and question why the crisis in our banking and financial institutions happened, with such a knock-on impact across so many businesses, affecting so many people.
Our culture in the Western world has placed an emphasis on wealth creation – the bottom line is all important - and upon globalisation, bigger is best. Without decrying the importance of both underlying profitability and geographical reach to any business, have they become the primary, if not the sole drivers for leaders? Perhaps we risk losing sight of the benefits of longer term investment for shorter term gain, as we focus on maximum gain for a disproportionate few and fail to create organisations that are meaningful and healthy for all employees?
Leaders in many businesses and organisations are today tasked with taking radical, decisive action to ensure survival. This is often at a human cost, with many facing uncertainty if not redundancy. For leaders it is also relentless, given the almost daily changing market conditions and lack of any perceived light at the end of the tunnel.
As any good builder knows, the strength of a new building comes from the security of its foundations. Our foundation stones have been shaken and in some cases demolished. No purpose will be served in trying to build on them. Looking ahead, leaders will need to identify new and secure foundation stones for their businesses or organisations, ensuring that they are well embedded.
In this climate, these new foundations may well reinvoke an emphasis upon meaningful true values and beliefs upon which people can depend. For Obama, they are “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity”. In times of uncertainty, it is upon such values that people can and do depend, so trustworthiness, authenticity and transparency may be the next touchstones.
In preparing the way forward, it is critical that leaders give a voice to others and listen to their views. This should include the next generation of leaders.
Faced with the consequences of the ongoing crisis, trust in an organisation and its leaders has been shaken. This trust needs to be rebuilt. At the core of this it will be the task of leaders to build healthy relationships within and beyond their organisation.
Leaders will require to explore new ways of working both within and across organisations, overcome the often prevailing silo mentality, and create new ways in which people can thrive. With more constrained resources, opportunities should be taken to develop effective partnerships across the private, public and voluntary sectors.
Leaders must openly embrace the differences amongst employees, particularly those which emerge in pressured situations, and be skilled in encouraging creativity and collaboration from these differences. At the same time, leaders will need to equip others to share this responsibility in building strong and healthy relationships.
Obama's inauguration speech resonated of the need to prepare for a new age. In saying this he is pointing to the necessity of leaders looking beyond the current crisis, and creating hope out of uncertainty.
Hugh Donald is chairman of leading UK law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn LLP