The Covid-19 pandemic requires us to draw on some deeply rooted human capabilities that we in the more affluent parts of the world have largely forgotten over the past 50-100 years. It is only in this tiny sliver of time that many (but far from all) of the world’s population have become accustomed to living healthy, long lives, free from the fear of powerful pathogens, arbitrary sickness, and a lottery of death.
The depth and scale of the crisis depend on two dimensions, both of which we have the capability to influence as individuals leading and working in our organizations.
The first is the medical dimension. It is all about the nature of the virus itself and our own biological defenses at an individual and population level. We are learning about that through impressively agile research, data sharing, and medical trials, but there is still much we do not know. We are all humbly grateful for, and dependent on, the scientists who dedicated their careers to understanding virology, epidemiology, and public health, and the frontline medics and carers whose positive impact on the course of the pandemic is felt and valued every day.
The rest of us can also influence these medical factors by ensuring that our organizations help their employees follow the medical advice to reduce transmission, and by freely volunteering ourselves, our services, skills, and assets as part of the global effort.
The second dimension is a social one. How virulent are the ‘social pathogens’ of mistrust, misinformation, fear, panic, and exploitation? And in turn, what are the ways of thinking, behaving, and leading that act as defenses for our organizations, wider society, and economy? How can we build and sustain this ‘social immunity’?
As people who spend their lives trying to help leaders and their organizations to act wisely and effectively in a complex world, we may be able to offer some useful perspectives on this.
Building social immunity
We are dealing with a rare shock to our global system that is seismic, dynamic, uncertain, and ubiquitous. But it is rare, not unprecedented. Arguably humanity’s greatest strength as a species has always been its supreme adaptability and when it comes to these crises such instincts serve us well.
Our research and practice at Hult Ashridge have for many years explored what it is that helps organizations weather and navigate complex and problematic situations of varying scales and degrees. We will continue to share these via webinars and blogs over the coming weeks, but here are three common defenses which help us develop social immunity:
One of the most vital of our defenses is our personal and organizational ability to absorb and recover from shocks, setbacks, and attritional burdens.
Resilience is partly physiological. We need the sleep, nutrition, exercise, and recovery time necessary to sustain ourselves through grueling periods of effort. But it is also psychological and social. Given the pressures we face as leaders, it is natural to find ourselves disorientated and anxious, but these internal states can harmfully 'infect' others through the way we behave unless we can find a way to manage them. Our research shows that the psychological resilience we need at work can be increased by cultivating mindfulness and our social resilience strengthened by focussing more of our attention on compassion and empathy for others during crisis periods.
2 - Reframing:
Our conventional mental models and ways of making sense of situations may not serve us well in these strange times.
World leaders like Johnson, Trump, and Bolsonaro initially (and in the latter case still) framed the situation as “just like the flu”. They learned too late, or through bitter personal experience, to shift their mental models to one that is better aligned with reality.
So it’s vital that we force ourselves to hear and absorb alternative perspectives, and allow these to reframe our perspective on what we are facing, and how we as leaders might respond.
In part this can be developed by encouraging a ‘speak up' and ‘listen up’ culture in which difficult truths can be spoken and heard and in which inclusion, diversity, and high-quality dialogue are cherished as ways to harness the power of the collective mind.
3 - Ingenuity
A third vital facet of social immunity is our ingenuity: The ability to find frugal, surprising, and effective workarounds in response to unfamiliar problems and opportunities.
Such stories are emerging on a daily basis in response to the Covid pandemic.
Just last week one of my clients - a senior nurse - was telling me how his NHS Hospital Trust is now in partnership with a local automotive manufacturer to produce Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to a medically approved specification. It happened as a result of another doctor in our network - connected through an Ashridge leadership program - developing a partnership with his local University to design and develop such PPE and then sharing the design through his professional and social networks.
Our social immunity is bolstered through such impromptu, serendipitous collaborations as well as more established structures for collaborative innovation. Leaders can alter the usual rules and encourage these collaborative opportunities to emerge, and innovation to flourish, through trial and error experimentation. New business models and ways of operating effectively will emerge from the upheaval, and leaders will need to be open to reviewing what a new ‘business as usual’ will mean.
Looking forward: from recovery to sustainability
As with all crises, the worst will eventually pass. It is too early to say what will emerge, and how profound and lasting the after-effects will be. All civilizations in human history have contended with pandemics and have been altered by them, often irrevocably. The tragic losses will hugely outweigh the unexpected upsides unless we use the experience to make transformative changes that will ensure people’s sacrifices were not in vain.
But learning from our mistakes and preventing future tragedies is where, as a species, our track record is rather patchy.
Opportunists will inevitably seize the moment to rewrite the story of what happened to suit their interests and tell us beguiling lies. All our instincts will spur us to resume life as normal. Our economy will have tanked. Our lives and livelihoods cratered. We want all that back. And we will probably see something like ‘business as usual' resuming in the short-medium term future.
That will be immensely comforting. But unfortunately, we can’t afford that luxury. Because this is probably just a dress rehearsal for what’s to come.
As the hideous example of ‘wildlife markets’ highlights, our economy’s misalignment with the natural world is profound. And with Covid-19 we are only starting to pay the price. The unnerving power of a simple little virus to derail our global way of life is dwarfed by the impacts of climate and ecosystem collapse over the coming decades.
So our grand challenge is to do what we’ve never managed to do before, and for which, in contrast to pandemics, we have no ancestral capabilities. This is to anticipate and mitigate a slow-moving existential crisis before it happens. Rather than prompting doom, this should give us what we need most: purpose, meaning, and hope for a better, sustainable future that future generations will thank us for.
And that’s why we need to draw some hope from the pandemic by using its lessons to accelerate the move to a profoundly different, more sustainable economic system. Ashridge is exploring this by advocating a more purpose-driven approach to the executive education sector of which we are a part and assisting organizations in pursuing their own purpose in pursuit of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Whether building collective immunity to the current crisis or forging a recovery worth the name, history shows that we have it in our power to make this pandemic not just a painful memory but a catalyst for a better world.
Julian Thompson is Head of Leadership Development at Hult Ashridge and his work centers on helping individuals and organizations achieve higher levels of purpose, productivity, and fulfillment in their working lives.