Evaluating leadership as reality sets in

June 2020

The word ‘unprecedented’ is often used to describe extraordinary events, but rarely applied in its most real sense. Usually what we call unprecedented had already happened before, just long enough ago to bypass our collective memories or in such a context that it seems to be a new event to us.

But the COVID-19 pandemic is by every measure unprecedented. We’ve never had a modern global economic recession that was caused by lockdowns and not the more typical kinds of liquidity crisis. You can point to 2008 or 1987 or many other examples, but none align with what is happening now.

Nor have we experienced a pandemic in this manner. Not only has any living person experienced a global pandemic, but those past pandemics took place at times when the general understanding of diseases was very different. Even during the Spanish flu of the early 1900s, germ theory was still relatively new and not as commonly accepted among the general public. Today we all have no problem agreeing that there is a virus out to get us.

Then there are many changes to business and social behaviours. If you list through all the shifts we’re experiencing, there isn’t any proxy except perhaps a war. This has made it a lot harder on leaders, because we really don’t have answers. In fact, we’re learning a lot ourselves. But every leader knows that they can’t leave uncertainty be, because all that will do is create a narrative vacuum that demands being filled. And narratives that don’t include leaders are inviting chaos.

This will become even more acute as the real nature of the pandemic emerges. Infection numbers are rising in many places, which was expected. The lockdowns served to prepare us and hopefully slow the spread enough to keep ahead of it. But the honeymoon phase is gone, and we’re about to see the pandemic show its true colours. Uncertainty will rise with this, and leaders will be under more pressure than ever before to give clarity and guidance.

How do we do that if we don’t even know what will happen next?

This question reminds me of the Chilean mining disaster of 2010, when dozens of miners were trapped underground for 69 days. Talk about an impossible situation for leaders. Yet, two compatible leadership styles emerged underground. One style focused on organisation and structure among the miners, while the other focused on their spiritual and mental wellbeing. The environment fluctuated between action-orientated and supportive leadership, in this case between two different leaders. It wasn’t a competition: each provided a different type of significance to the trapped miners.

Those miners faced serious uncertainty and no small degree of helplessness. Yet they survived 600 metres underground in darkness, for more than two months. That event shows that we shouldn’t see leadership as only authoritative or leading from the front. Leadership also requires compassion and a degree of faith in our people.

As COVID-19’s threat becomes more clear and present, leaders should remember this. They are not just there to lead, but to also guide and support. And if they can’t do it themselves, they should look to those around them to make up the difference.

Together we can get through a very unprecedented crisis.

Sean Pyott

MD, thryve

Catch up on our past newsletters



May 2020

Reigniting progress
It’s been interesting to see how we lament what we used to have in the business world.




April 2020

The challenge with change is that it’s rarely big and bold. If we could see change coming from far away or find our way to the crest of the wave, then change would not be so hard to understand.




March 2020

It’s not easy to appreciate the maxim: “May you live in interesting times.” Not until such times arrive and we have to reevaluate how we do things.




February 2020

It is tempting to refer to the start of 2020 as biblical. Firestorms, epidemics and escalating conflicts – this is already shaping up to be the year of external risks.