Article by Margaret Heffernan, Harvard Business Review

Image by Jonatan Pie on Unsplash

In a crisis, the possibility of failure feels close. This often drives leaders into command-and-control mode: more-rigid schedules, tighter budgets, exaggerated targets, hyperbolic promises. Military metaphors proliferate. But during a crisis of deep ambiguity and uncertainty, what’s more important than the rhetorical demonstration of certainty is the formulation of a strong, shared sense of meaning. Leaders can’t impose this from above. Their role is to become activists who convene people — employees, suppliers, customers, members of the communities that the company serves — to explore and define that meaning together.

To succeed, in good times or bad, the leader of any organization must be able to answer the question “What are we here for?” In volatile times, focusing on that question is even more urgent, because the organization’s activity often needs to change. Past usefulness can become irrelevant overnight; just ask the owners of today’s travel businesses, movie theaters, and gyms. In this context, business as usual, even on steroids, is an inadequate response. Instead, leaders have to shift their goals from maintaining the status quo to constructing a newly imagined future. It’s hard for leaders to do both at once. “I’m trying not to drown in pragmatism,” one executive of a global advisory firm told me recently.

Where are leaders to find their sense of purpose?

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