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Leading In the Age of Coronavirus — please, it’s not about WFH.

This article originally appeared in Medium on March 19, 2020

When it comes to leading in this moment, a lot of information is swirling around on the topic of how to work from home or how to lead through disruption — like contingency planning. These are of course very helpful and important topics, but they miss the point and the soul of leadership right now.

As a futurist, humanist, innovation and leadership expert, I’ve spent the last 20+ years working with chief executives from many Fortune 500 organizations on how to develop exceptional leaders that can lead through and respond to the mega-shifts coming in the future. I’m one of the first voices pointing out that we must reimagine from the ground up the future of our economy, governments, and humanity in the age of AI and robotics. The parallels between what we need to do to navigate the Coronavirus pandemic and AI are endless. (See our series on Instagram or Twitter.)

Here we are at a moment where the disruptions I have anticipated have been accelerated — not by the exponential curve of technology, but by the exponential curve of a virus. Let us not mince words, the future will never be the same. Our economic, social, political, mental, and human order has forever been changed, and it will necessarily need to.

Here is what I’d like to say to all of you in this moment…

First, recognize where we are in the change cycle. We are in the first phase, the shock to the system. I am calling this moment THE BIG SQUEEZE (I’ll address the additional phases we’ll be facing in a separate post). Everyone is hustling, pushing through the shock, and striving to keep things as status quo as possible. Trying to handle an impossible juggling act of working from home while caring for their families and confronting the existential crisis we are in right now. People are grasping for a sense of normalcy, clinging to old mental and structural models, using technology as an intermediator. This is all normal and expected considering the circumstances.

But here is what we need to recognize as leaders: leading right now, cannot only be about leading for the short-term welfare of our people and our bottom line. It’s NOT about giving people tips about working from home. It’s about becoming a grounding and visionary presence for your people.

So your work, right now, isn’t around creating an efficient work from home situation. Your work right now is to tune inwards and TEND TO YOUR INNER STRUGGLE so you can TEND TO YOUR TEAM’S. Bypassing the emotional charge, the fear, the anxiety that we are all in, is counterproductive and will ultimately NOT benefit you or your business.

It’s tempting to bypass this moment because it feels foreign, inappropriate in a business context. It’s easier to maintain distance, a sense of professionalism, a tone of respectful dialogue. But let’s explore together what doing that means for you and your teams:

  • It means that you are guiding your people from a heightened state of agitation, from which we never make wise decisions.

  • It means that your teams are suppressing their feelings and sensations at this moment. Where do those feelings get discharged? In their work (errors), with coworkers (heightened tensions and more errors), and more often than not, with their children and families. The situation is already trying, all together in a home, 24/7 for an unforeseeable period of time. You know this is where the emotions will be discharged, perhaps even yours. The societal implications are profound.

  • It also means that we maintain business as usual, when business as usual isn’t going to serve the state of the world moving forward. The axis on which the world turns has permanently changed (more on this below).

It’s time we embody the most virtuous of leadership roles, which is to become the moral stewards of our future and our people. You must tend to the very real urgency of protecting the existence of our species, and caring for the inner struggles of your people. You must create space for people to name their feelings, to open up with each other, to navigate this storm together, to resource with one another, and practice true care and resilience. This is your duty.

Second, let’s explore what must be done. We’ve long discussed how AI and robotics are going to have a seismic impact on our economy, on people’s livelihoods, and put into sharp focus the existential question of what we will even value about our humanity and how we will preserve the welfare and dignity of human beings. I just gave a TEDx talk on this.

We live in a time of accelerating + exponential change. Shocks to the system will be more frequent. Right now, there are five new mega-shifts we need to consider:

  1. Economic and Governmental resource depletion — A few days ago, the U.S. government has approved a resolution to grant paid leave benefits and multi-industry relief efforts to staunch an economic spiral and social collapse. These measures, while imperfect, are absolutely necessary, but will not sufficiently protect us from the future. This pandemic will impact our world for the next 18 months to 2 years, if not longer. The impact on small businesses and big industries will be catastrophic. Nearly every forecast predicts a dramatic economic and human cost, here from the Brookings Institution:

“The loss of real GDP, relative to what would have been the model prediction in 2020 without the virus, is approximately $US2.3 trillion for the world. Of that, the US economy loses $US420 billion in 2020 […] Of course, if the virus spreads more widely or turns out to be more severe, the costs would be larger.”

The relief package will get us through a short-term downturn, but we will need ever more injections of cash to sustain life as we know it. In the near future it will be about helping us get through the pandemic, next it will be about handling the massive work displacement from AI and robotics. The government cannot keep giving payouts, and the economy won’t recover quickly enough to create new work opportunities for those displaced. There is an implosion on the horizon. We need to reimagine our entire system and concepts of work, trade, monetary growth. We urgently need to reform capitalism, redefine human contribution, and create a new governmental and social order. This becomes the new URGENT CALL FOR LEADERSHIP. For ideas here, I can recommend Mariana Mazzucato’s book, The Value of Everything, and Paul Collier’s book The Future of Capitalism and several other visionary ideas that are too long to list here.

2. Acceleration of AI and robotics, and genomics into our daily lives — This pandemic is also going to accelerate the creation of AI and robotics that can occupy the roles that people have had to necessarily evacuate from their jobs, and the genomic research that will serve as preventative measures to stanch further pandemics. Mind my words. The already threatening exponential curve of technology that we expected to impact on human jobs, is only going to be accelerated. The bionic ideals of our 1970s shows will also be fast-tracked. It’s natural that individuals and businesses will aim to restore order and protect from future similar catastrophes. This acceleration will also catapult a slew of other deep ethical and moral implications, such as should we adopt ubiquitous AI fever monitoring (wearables and infrared)? How do we handle the great inequities that will arise when we modify genomes of some but not others? These kinds of decisions have profound implications on our social order, personal privacy, and arc of human history. Ethical and moral decision making becomes THE NEW CRUX OF LEADERSHIP.

3. Large-scale decentralization — supply chains will be disintermediated, people are going to conduct their daily lives closer to home, and we will see a new slew of innovations geared around greater self-sufficiency and resiliency. People, cities, and organizations are going to recalibrate, we’ll see more local and novel farming practices — vertical farming, for example. We’ll see reshoring of business practices and more local manufacturing. We’ll see a spike of global virtuality and local reality. We’ll see a surge of decentralized energy production. And so on. Naturally, we will attempt to take out of our interconnected global system any single point of failure.

4. Greater emphasis on existential-risk mitigation — this is less of a forecast, but a true hope. A hope that as a result of this global, personally felt, and existential crisis, we will mind the other real systemic crises that are on the horizon and forge far greater, novel, and necessary private-public partnerships, scientific collaboration, and mobilize quickly. Here I’m mainly talking about CLIMATE CHANGE, which alone could precipitate many more pandemics in rapid succession. Not far behind are nuclear and genomic warfare, autonomous weapons, flawed super intelligence, unforeseen catastrophic biological consequences from genomic manipulation, and asteroid collisions. We need to collectively address these issues, put them ALL on our leadership agenda.

5. A new emphasis on human wellbeing and welfare — gone are the days of value maximization (I truly hope). Enter the new reality — where the mental and emotional shocks of this prolonged social isolation and existential fear will shape a new consciousness around how to create a truly flourishing life for individuals and society. As soon as we can reunite, we will need to address many new strained mental states, do the long and collective work of healing, and rekindle a warmer, more positive way of living. This too requires your leadership.

Personally, I welcome these mega-shifts, because they mean that we really do need to move fast from the big squeeze, to the NEW EXPERIMENT. There is something quite clarifying about an existential shock like coronavirus IF we wake up to it. If we take advantage of the chaos that is this present moment and welcome it as a new beginning.

To do this, we need leaders who will do the moral work of this generation. Who can help their people shift from panic, displacement, fear, and anxiety, to hopefulness, creativity, and visioning. Your responsibility as a leader is not only to your bottom line right now. It is to the welfare of your people and the future of our society as a whole. You are being asked in this moment to do what I call the DIFFICULT STRADDLE. Keeping one foot on this side — making your organizations run to avoid a full economic failure. AND do the visionary work of pulling your people with you to imagine and lay the experimental groundwork for a new future.

It starts with doing your own deep insight work, attending to our emotional and moral wellbeing, and holding our preconceived notions far more loosely.

These are initial ideas, I welcome your thoughts in the comments.


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