This is the third article in our Leadership Now series, written by Wavelength associate, Helen Trevaskis.
This third and final article on leadership and COVID-19, considers how leaders balance dreams of a better future with leading during a period of intense socio-economic uncertainty, and what difference leadership can make.
In a thought-piece published by the Economist this April, Mark Carney discussed the opportunity COVID-19 presents for leaders to embolden their ambitions, in particular with regard to our planet. The former Governor of the Bank of England turned UN climate envoy, also expressed guarded optimism that the pandemic could lead to a closing of the gap between what people value and what markets value: succour in worrying times. However, as Professor Adam Smith noted on Rethink, Radio Four’s examination of what past catastrophes teach us in the present,“People are right to think that these kind of crisis moments can lead to huge change but it’s also true that in the midst of a crisis people are notoriously bad at accurately predicting what kinds of huge changes are about to take place.”
So what does this treacherously opaque backdrop mean for leaders? Are they doomed to joyless years of head-down-thank-your-lucky-stars-you-still-have-a-business slog, or is there the possibility of navigating a more aspirational course?
Baroness Sue Campbell spoke to this topic during a recent conversation with members of Wavelength’s leadership development program Connect, in the context of the challenges she’s faced as Director of Women’s football at the FA. Campbell was hired in 2016 by then CE Martin Glen to transform the women’s game and the positive impact of her four-year tenure is recognised, not least by the 60% increase over the last two years in UK adults who consider themselves women’s football fans. A remarkable achievement particularly given that while the FA may talk about being ‘For All’, the organisation Campbell joined had only a limited grasp of the potential of the women’s game.
Reflecting on her own leadership at the FA – and as Chair of UK Sport before during and after London 2012 – Sue is clear that leaders seeking to embark on transformative change in the outside world must first look inside. Campbell challenged Connect leaders to consider, “Do you know what drives you? I hope it’s not just money, I hope it’s not just position and power. It’s important that you know yourself. Take time.” Core to this for Campbell is the distinction between business purpose and moral purpose. So while the FA wants to grow women’s football for player and fans, Campbell is driven by a desire to promote the right of girls and women to be whatever they want to be, to feel good, to have self-worth. That these align so perfectly is part of what attracted her to get involved in the beautiful game at a point when most her age are retiring.
While some of us have had too much time for such reflection during lockdown and others too little, Sue sees leadership is an on-going process within which self-examination and self-understanding are critical. This idea of leadership as process was echoed by others introduced to the 2020 Connect cohort, including David Pemsel former CEO of the Guardian Media Group. Until he left earlier this year, Pemsel helped Guardian’s Editor-in-chief Katherine Viner grow audiences and revenue in the face of sector-wide digital decimation while ramping up the publication’s reputation for editorial independence and holding truth to power. Pemsel considers all CEOs as “work in progress” – fallible human beings who must remain curious, make time to read and keep learning, and understand that the privilege of leadership sits alongside the reality that you often don’t know what you’re doing but have to keep on going, or “doing by doing” as he puts it.
Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the Manchester Guardian, forerunner of today’s Guardian. It was founded by cotton merchant John Edward Taylor who wanted to ‘promote the liberal interest in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre, in the context of the growing anti-Corn Laws campaign flourishing in Manchester during this period’. That a lasting force for good should emerge at a time of parliamentary suppression could not have been predicted in 1821. Which brings us back to where this article started, with the optimism of Carney and the cautiousness of Professor Adam Smith.
Right now it feels important to hold onto a belief that some post-COVID 19 change will be good. It also feels important to remember that one person with vision – like John Edward Taylor – can make a positive difference. Which means that as leaders and as mere human beings unable to predict the future, we must use whatever platform we have to do the best we can, or, as Sue Campbell more compellingly puts it;
“Have the courage to pursue what is right, not what is popular or expedient… If you really want to be a leader and a leader of change you have to look at yourself and you have to consider deeply, what is the right thing to do?”
Professor Adam Smith on Rethink of Taking the Long View: previous unforeseen crises in British history, Jonathan Freedland explores the hopes and fears for recovery – and the unexpected consequences that followed.
Quote regarding Guardian’s history in inverted commas.