“It is not what you know that counts for great leadership, it is how you lead.”
In leadership literature there are two types of challenges – technical and adaptive. A technical challenge is one that has obvious solutions. A bank that is losing money year-on-year will, if well-led, can work out a way of reversing the situation. A school that has poor grades can, with good leadership, change its curriculum, improve teaching quality and strengthen parent-teacher engagement for example, to improve student performance. These kinds of technical challenges are familiar problems with well-known solutions. If additional help is needed, people with expert knowledge can help facilitate responses to technical challenges. On the other hand, an adaptive challenge is one that defies everything we know about how to solve problems, often called wicked problems. We don’t know how to solve world hunger, the global refugee crisis, and now Covid-19.
What should leaders do to address Covid-19? Leaders have already begun to understand that Covid-19 is not just another health problem: responses to the diseases have now affected and disrupted every aspect of our lives. Businesses have come to grinding halt, schools have closed, people have been isolated and governments are scrambling to provide basic services. Finding a ‘cure’ for the disease is not enough to fix the problem.
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein
To tackle the Covid-19 challenge we have to learn new ways and discover new processes. We have to develop new judgements, clarify our values, develop new ways of relating to one another and give power to people who normally do not have power so they too can participate in finding a solution. Here the role of leaders in facilitating groups of people with various ideas and responsibilities is critical, since clearly one leader does not have the required knowledge to address all aspects of the challenge. The challenge is how to unite to beat the disease, not just how to control Covid-19.
Leaders’ roles in facilitating solutions to adaptive challenges are never straightforward. Some people prefer their leaders to give them a solution. Others do not want to give up their current familiar lifestyle, so prefer things stay the same. Others may be reluctant to cooperate with people who may be different from them, because of ignorance, fear or a lack of trust. Yet others cannot get passed their sense of blaming others, even though this does not achieve anything. Any of these situations can apply to Malaysia. However, since Malaysia is blessed with many races and religions, leaders here should not go down the route of ruling by dividing the population into groups – the in groups and the out groups. Instead leaders should seek to build trust among all people to meet this challenge. With this trust, leaders’ role is to ‘hold’ people in a safe place while a series of responses to the challenge are negotiated. Leaders must acknowledge and demonstrate that our diversity is our strength and that everybody’s contribution is valued. We have to save every single individual in order to save the whole nation.
“Despite leaders’ best efforts, failures are inevitable.”
Failures and disappointments will strain our sense of who we are and our core values as Malaysians. It will strain our unity. We may struggle to see the goodness in each other. Our shared trust may erode. In this context, we turn to our leaders to accept failures and continue to search for solutions, while keeping everyone included and valued.
Whether we are leading a country or a company, whether we are in charge of an MNC or an SME, whether we are a head of a village or member of a gotong royong or a religious leader, let us be more inclusive in the future. Let us create a place for everyone without fear or favour and above all let us value the gifts that people bring to defeat Covid-19 and build a brighter future
A leader for these times is an inclusive leader, someone who is humble, who engages both experts and ordinary folk, values the gifts that each bring and most importantly makes sure that we are working together towards the same goal, in this case to beat Covid-19. There is no room for special treatment for special interest groups, because we are all in this together. If somebody or some group is left behind, we all suffer. We always knew this but lately it has been forgotten.
“In this crisis we have to remember that we are tied together by our common humanity.”