Life During Wartime: Three Leadership Lessons From 2020
December 17, 2020
2020 has been a year like no other in modern times, where we have all experienced unique circumstances that few could have anticipated this time last year.
From these unique circumstances, there have been many lessons learned, so Tim Crow has provided iSPORTCONNECT a bonus ‘Christmas Crowdown’, giving his three lessons on leadersip from 2020.
A couple of weeks into lockdown, one of the CEOs I advise said to me, “I feel like I’m in a war”. As the year progressed, many others said something similar to me, about the effect that the invisible enemy we’re at war with was having on their lives and businesses.
The analogy prompted me to re-read Ben Horowitz’s famous 2014 essay ‘Peacetime CEO/Wartime CEO’, in which he argued that CEOs needed two radically different management styles: a collaborative one for ‘peacetime’, when business is good; and a confrontational style for ‘wartime’, when your business is facing an existential threat.
“It was clear that the leadership style that was needed to navigate wartime in 2020 was anything but the one Ben had advocated.”
When I first read the essay in 2014, I disagreed profoundly with most of it, because of my own experience. Ten of my eleven years of being a CEO were ‘peacetime’ years. The other – my second as CEO – was definitively ‘wartime’: it was dominated by the financial crash, which had at its epicentre my company’s biggest client RBS, whose sponsorships, in which we were instrumental, were being cited worldwide as evidence of RBS’s mismanagement. However, not only did we survive, we thrived. But I have no doubt that if I had adopted Horowitz’s ‘wartime CEO’ style, the result would have been very different.
When I returned to Ben’s essay, my opinion of it remained the same. But this time, that feeling was heightened because both in my own work with CEOs, and in my conversations with and observations of others, it was clear that the leadership style that was needed to navigate wartime in 2020 was anything but the one Ben had advocated.
When I look back on this year, I’m going to take three leadership lessons in particular away from it.
1. Be true to who you are
An old friend was promoted to CEO last year. He was the natural choice, having worked there for several years and done a great job. His natural persona was relaxed, funny, and kind, which along with being a skilled operator had made him very popular with his colleagues and stakeholders. But when the pandemic hit, he felt he had to change: to become much more serious, both to reflect the situation and to show he was on top of it.
Problem was, it didn’t work. He felt increasingly unhappy with this new persona, not only because it wasn’t true to who he really was, but also because it had the opposite effect of what he intended on his colleagues and stakeholders. Rather than re-assuring them, it made them nervous. They wanted their old boss back.
“The gap between who we are at work and who we are at home is much, much smaller. Paradoxically, ‘remote’ working means that we’ve learned more about each other’s home lives, and become much closer, than ever before.”
Fortunately, giving and receiving feedback was intrinsic to the culture of the company, so they felt empowered to tell him, and he listened. Problem solved. He went back to being who he really was, and he and his company are not only surviving the crisis, they’re thriving.
2. Understand that the work-life gap has narrowed
Leading into 2020, another CEO I advise, who is a working mother, wanted to close the gap between the work and home lives and personas of the people in her company. Based on her experiences, she felt that that gap, and how it forced people to behave, was holding people back. The positive effects of what she’d tried already, such as flexible working patterns and enabling people to bring their kids and dogs into the office, had had very positive effects on the company culture, and she wanted to accelerate it.
One of the unintended consequences of the pandemic is that is now on the agenda of the CEO of every office-based business. The gap between who we are at work and who we are at home is much, much smaller. Paradoxically, ‘remote’ working means that we’ve learned more about each other’s home lives, and become much closer, than ever before. We’re also more tolerant. When a Zoom call is interrupted by a child, or by a dog barking, we accept it and enjoy it. After all, it is an essential part of who we are.
“If the pandemic has proved anything, it’s that home performance can be high performance too.”
As we return to office, I suspect that the CEOs who understand and build on this and the behaviours we have developed during the pandemic will be more successful than those who simply want things to go back to how they were before.
3. High performance doesn’t need an office
Before the pandemic hit, working from home was the exception rather than the rule. Sure, it was widespread, but there was always an implicit sense that allowing people to work from home was somehow to the detriment of developing a high-performance culture.
If the pandemic has proved anything, it’s that home performance can be high performance too. Many businesses whose people have been WFH for most of the year have in fact seen increases in speed and productivity. For example, during an iSPORTCONNECT Masterclass which I moderated in the summer, the leader of one major sports rights holder revealed that their average time from having an idea to making it happen had shrunk from three months to two weeks. And there are plenty of successful businesses, including one I advise, which have taken long lease offices completely out of their business models and pivoted to WFH.
Too radical? Maybe. And I recognise that most people long for a return to the office as a sign of a return to normality. But I can’t help but feel that CEOs who don’t put reimagining work and the workplace on their agenda for 2021, to build on what we’ve learnt in 2020, will be missing a trick