One of the most beguiling moments for a leader is when he (for, too often, the leader is still a he) is asked “so what happens next?” Pause for that moment – and think very hard. How you answer that question will condition your organisation’s actions going forward … and your own actions are likely to become more constrained. The temptation is to have all the answers as a leader and to play games as an organisation. The trick is to keep asking powerful questions and encourage the organisation into real work.
“What happens next?” comes in many flavours:
- Literally, what does the future hold?
- How will this change programme work?
- What do you want me to do differently?
- What does my job or bonus depend on being seen to do?
Psychology and pragmatism both tempt leaders to have all the answers. Their career has been about applying experience accumulated in a succession of largely successful actions that sifted them from colleagues – they know what works – or at least they think they do. Leaders also want – need – quick actions from their organisation. Why wouldn’t you just tell people what happens next?
In A Question of Leadership – leading organizational change in times of crisis, I describe how even the smallest organisation is a complex system but, all too often, leaders are so time-bereft that they short-circuit the conversations and understanding that are essential for success. Senior leaders often under-estimate the impact of central initiatives – say a new IT system – on frontline leaders who make daily trade-offs to keep operational routines happening. Instead, they rely on their own (limited) experience of what worked for them before and they fall into the ‘optimism trap’ and the ‘planning fallacy’ of believing that ‘the plan’ will somehow pull them through. In many cases, all that activity is merely leaders and organisations ‘playing games’ that pretend to deliver change but are, in reality, avoiding the real work of change and end up undermining the organisation. Change is truly an accident waiting to happen.
The pandemic of 2020 made these leadership accidents visible to us all because none of us were mere bystanders in a complex period of change for all of society. All of us experienced new threats, a new language of change and observed good and bad leadership in a way remembered only by the few who had experienced war or shortage or disease. The pandemic saw a flourishing of leadership among 750,000 volunteers in the NHS, local food charities – and our own 22,000 Samaritans volunteers. Government had successes with initiatives that play to central strengths, such as the Nightingale hospitals and vaccine funding, while struggling when intervening centrally in complex local systems, such as care homes and schools. Successful leadership was evident in new ways as we worked from home, as we led our families or schooling or street or community, or managed new risks in care homes or customer service. The clue to our Public Health emergency was always in the title – the public response.
A Question of Leadership highlights what it takes to succeed. First, asking powerful questions:
- What does it take to keep the operation going?
- Where are we already succeeding with a new approach?
- What is it that keeps you putting in this extra effort?
- What will it take to adapt to these new behaviours?
Then, doing what only leaders can do:
- Balancing immediate tasks with the ultimate goal.
- Focussing on the real work rather than gaming the system.
- Building a sense of belonging, inclusion and mental health.
“What happens next?” is a complex question, as we all know from the pandemic. Forecasts of being “back to normal by …” are still being blithely offered by politicians who should have learned from their experience of 2020. At the very least, the SAMI techniques of scenarios and future-scanning should be in play. Leaders who pretend to have all the answers are likely to leave us disappointed and to miss their target. Doing the real work of framing powerful questions will leave you satisfied with your leadership and your organisation more successful.
Keith Leslie is the author of A Question of Leadership and Chair of Samaritans in the UK & Ireland and an associate of SAMI. He is also Chair of Mental Health At Work CIC, former Chair of the Mental Health Foundation, and a former partner at McKinsey and Deloitte.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.
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