Q. What is the core of your research?
A. I study leaders in crises as a way of understanding how individuals and teams raise the level of their game — I research their emotional intelligence, their tools and impacts and their sense of what is possible as formed during periods of turbulence.
Crises are crucibles — leaders get better faster and their missions move forward more effectively in times when the old rules, strategies and SOPs don’t hold because what they’re experiencing is unprecedented.
Q. The world faces an unprecedented climate crisis. What should business leaders do?
A . Businesses are the single most powerful solution we have to the climate crisis.
Business has a huge role in effecting the kind of energy and technology used and diffused among the public. But business also has the resources, mechanisms, people and perspectives to solve problems. The nature of business is to solve problems and move towards opportunities. The climate crisis is a set of interdependent problems that need solutions — and businesses can take a powerful lead by putting a real stake in clean energy, sustainable products and conserving planetary resources.
One example is which placed a huge bet on different products that halt or reverse environmental degradation. Its recent former CEO, Paul Polman, was willing to bet his company’s future, including its stock price, on business having to be conducted very differently to stop ecological harm.
Importantly, Polman was always explaining, to analysts, stockholders and the financial markets, what he was doing and why. The company could consistent ly make sustainable investments and maintain a sufficiently high equity value largely because of his ability to marry the long game, with business conducting itself as an environmental steward, with the short game, which was explaining this properly to the capital market.
Some businesses ask, ‘How do I manage the pressure to keep my stock prices high and my dividend robust?’ Unilever showed how you could do this. Other companies doing this now treat their analysts, stockholders and the public as being more intelligent and long-sighted than simply thinking of immediate gratifications.
Q. Are there lessons for businesses from the recent extreme weather events occurring in Germany?
A. Every crisis is a good classroom. When you look at German villages, with centuries-old buildings decimated and lives ended, it seems unbelievable that the climate crisis is being allowed to continue.
The first lesson is, someone has to lead — business leaders would be much faster and more effective than anyone else. The next step is for a business leader to ask, ‘What can my company do to lower its carbon impact?’ Understand the right steps to follow from a quarter to a biannual and annual level. Take a palpable step and tell the story of that step — as soon as a leader says, ‘This is what we’re doing’, they inspire others to follow. The momentum of solutions can gather pace only like this.
Q. You’ve written about confronting fear and having emotional awareness — why are these important for business leaders to do?
A. Confronting your fear is essential in a crisis. Businesses face multiple challenges today, from Covid-19 to economic dislocation and climate change. In such a moment, effective business leaders must realise their greatest assets are within themselves. They need to ask, ‘What is my emotional awareness? How do I use this to develop tools which can mitigate these problems?’
The tools can range from adhering to discipline to showing up with credibility for other people. I’ve been coaching business leaders on the anxiety that’s grown among their employees. By confronting their own fears and understanding their strengths, business leaders can be grounded and take the right steps for their employees. These tools are necessary to survive and thrive in a crisis — they all rest in a repository of emotional awareness.
Q. Can you share your insights on ‘calm leadership’ and Rachel Carson, the environmental scientist?
A. Rachel Carson was a quiet, retiring individual who preferred walking along the coastlines of Maine to walking in the corridors of power in Washington DC. Yet, her work launched the global environmental movement. Business leaders studying her can throw away the old shibboleths of leadership meaning having charisma and being a great public speaker. Only one’s conviction of purpose matters.
Carson showed the importance of respecting the interdependence of all life. This helps mitigate the climate crisis but it also helps business leaders see their own companies, consumers and supply chains in a new light. And she understood urgency is our friend. The sooner we jump in to solve a problem, the more empowered and inspiring we become.
Views expressed are personal