A time for wartime leaders

H+K's Australia CEO on what the bushfire crisis means for leadership.

Australian PM Scott Morrison has been criticised for his handling of the bushfire crisis
Australian PM Scott Morrison has been criticised for his handling of the bushfire crisis

The devastating bushfires Australia has experienced this summer and the unprecedented, prolonged drought across eastern Australia have marked a tipping point in how leaders adapt and respond to a range of unique circumstances.

In addition to the ongoing and long-term impact the bushfires will have on our people, communities, industry and wildlife, 2020 also sees a range of complex and evolving global conditions that will create further headwinds for businesses.

Leaders across all sectors will face these circumstances under intense public scrutiny.

Certainly, for those of us in Australia we find ourselves in truly unchartered waters. The challenge is no longer how to avert headwinds or identify tailwinds, rather how to harness the crosswinds of change.

For businesses and society, these crosswinds have created a war on everything: on traditional leadership, on the role of companies, how we live and how we plan for the future. Success in these turbulent times calls for wartime leadership.

According to business leadership commentator Ben Horowitz, peacetime in business means a time where a company has a large advantage in its core market, and its market is growing. In times of peace, the company can focus on expanding the market and reinforcing the company's strengths.

In 2020, it’s business unusual and leaders will be required to fend off a range of existential threats. These could come from a wide range of sources including increasing geo-political instability, social disenfranchisement and polarisation, macro-economic change, climate change and so forth.

The role of a wartime leader

A wartime leader is led by the very specific circumstances of their time.

A wartime leader is hyper aware and ever questioning; constantly articulates and demands adherence to their business purpose; has long-term guiding vision; has excellent intelligence networks to seek insight and information from a broad range of sources and channels; and isn’t afraid to pivot their business or strategy to a responding threat and can rapidly refocus people, skills, assets and revenue streams accordingly, and ideally in anticipation of it regardless of the accepted wisdom.

The style of leadership that resulted in business growth and profitability in previous decades will no longer be enough. Leaders will need to rethink traditional boundaries of competition, market and industry and navigate new pathways to collaboration, product development or service delivery in light of evolving conditions.

This is an opportunity for leaders is to look beyond traditional business metrics such as profit margins and shareholder return to really consider and create purpose-driven organisations. A leap beyond social responsibility, this means considering the long-term, positive impact – or legacy, if you will – they will have on all of their stakeholders and touchpoints including their employees, their community, and their environment.

Maintaining the same mindset that worked in previous decades will simply not serve us into the future. Will our leaders step up to become wartime leaders or will they succumb to the challenges of the time?

Mandy Galmes is CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Australia


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