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Leadership is about being “ nimble” rather than “humble”.


On Monday the inimitable New York Times published a must read review of Europe’s response to the Corona Virus. The headline was “Europe’s pride went before a fall”, its message “learn humility”. But that is where I think the good scribes of NYT got it wrong.  They were correct in describing how national confidence in the great centers of healthcare in Germany, France and the UK suddenly collapsed as their unpreparedness became a self evident reality. However when it comes to leadership* there is something else at work here. It stems from thousands of years of evolving psychology and it matters.

We humans have never been good at imagining the worst case scenario (WCS). Confronted with the real calamity fear gets in the way. We hope so strongly the worst does not happen that we would rather not think about it. But since our time in the caves we have learned that exploring worst case scenarios is not of itself a particularly helpful way of operating. We always knew there are all manner of horrors waiting for us in the darkness of the forests and we no less knew that if we focused on them we would never move from the cave. Of course we knew trying to corner a mammoth was pretty dangerous kit – but otherwise we would starve. We combatted our fears with cover up, with bragging, with denial. We were not so much showing off as hiding our fears of failure.

The real issue was in the leadership we showed and our inability to be nimble – to think like a dancer – in not an least reviewing the likely parameters of future potential disasters, and in not being able to prepare and reframe the world when the disaster struck.

Here in the US the leadership, far from being nimble, far from being prepared to rethink basics, followed the example of paleolithic man forced to face the local behemoth – it froze, went into denial and prayed for a miracle. A 21st century version of blaming the gods. Rather than criticizing the Europeans it is in fact encouraging that whilst many officials have tried to justify their failures, the British Prime Minister has faced the sluggish response. Johnson described the experience “like that in a recurring bad dream when you are telling your feet to run and your feet won’t move”. He was clearing his mind to be able to restart his leadership.

Black Swan events, global calamities, are by their very nature unexpected. They are events for which we are unprepared. The leadership role is to recognize this and confront it quickly. To be nimble, to review plans, to adapt and to rebalance. There is no need for blame, none for cover up or for abrogating responsibility. This is the moment true leaders recognize and embrace as their destiny.

Have a good day. James.

*James Cooke will publish his master class “The New leadership” at the end of July.