Companies & Industries

2010: When Leadership Hit the Rapids


Executive coach Gill Corkindale explains why she "let go of theories and focused on realities" during the last 12 months

Posted on Harvard Business Review: December 29, 2010 8:30 AM

As the year draws to a close, I'm reflecting on what I have learned about leadership from my clients. It has been a year of challenges for most: relentless business demands, continuing change, and higher expectations from them as leaders. For me, 2010 was the year when I let go of theories and focused on realities, most notably the real challenges of leading in the 21st century.

I changed my game. No longer do I need to explain how globalization drives change and that leaders must adapt to a fast-changing world: the economic crisis brought this home decisively. Nor do I have to convince leaders to develop new competencies: experience taught them that self-awareness, being able to deal with ambiguity, manage continual change, devolve leadership, and coach their people and are critical to their survival.

Over the last twelve months, I have seen the best and worst in leadership. One of the most memorable moments was listening to an executive of a British bank rescued by the government, who told his audience that the economic crisis had been a breakthrough moment in his career. "What we are learning is priceless," he said. "One day, it will form the basis of a masters in finance, and you should all grasp this opportunity to learn with open hands." His words lifted the spirits of his audience and threw a fresh and different light on their situation

Another leader, a retailing executive in Dubai, told me how he'd coached his young and inexperienced team in 2010: "They were used to the easy wins and rapid growth of an emerging market, but they had to learn that life isn't always like that—hard work, focus and drive gets results over the longer term." Another executive from South Korea spoke forcefully about how he would leave his highly-paid job in an instant to join 1.6 million soldiers massed along Korea's borders should war break out.

Most impressive and humbling of all, though, was the leader I coached from Bethlehem, who faced challenges every day that are unthinkable to leaders elsewhere in the world. Against all the odds, he ran a successful business in a failing state, on the brink of war, under stringent and punitive regulations and with little support or recognition from the head office. Yet year after year, he delivered results, brought valuable goods and services to his region and still managed to coach and inspire generations of young executives. If anyone deserves a global platform to speak about leadership, he does.

Of course, there are also less positive stories to recount. I was shocked to witness an investment banker recoiling in fury minutes after he had been told he wouldn't be getting his bonus: no rational arguments about the good work he had done with his team, the collective failure of leadership in his bank nor the market conditions could quell his rage. And it was chilling to observe the steely determination of many leaders in the financial services industry to take us right back to the status quo ante, ignoring the lessons of the economic crisis. This was a brutal reminder that not everyone saw the past as a dark place.

While 2010 brought opportunities for some—promotions, unexpected opportunities, and new possibilities—for others, life took a downturn. One senior oil executive, who had delivered results year after year, found that his track record had evaporated from sight when his sponsors were fired. Left vulnerable and exposed, he was the next to go. His only mistake had been a failure to network and build a wide range of supporters.

Disappointing news, too, for the tireless French executive who dedicated two long years to building a successful new business in Russia, only to be told there was "no longer a role" for him under a new regional boss. He had done everything right, from managing his team, boss and peers, networking and delivering outstanding results: politics and a change of leadership marked the end of his career.

On a more general note, it has been interesting this year to watch clients respond to the things they once disdained or viewed as peripheral to their development, such as defining their roles, developing their presence, showing courage, developing political antennae, and finding time to reflect. I notice that they listen more attentively than before and are quick to put their learning into action.

Occasionally, I do find myself referring to one writer who presciently declared that leaders needed to get used to "permanent white water," a reference to the dangerous rapids he saw ahead for leaders. In his 1996 book, Learning as a Way of Being, Peter Vaill said leaders had to learn to navigate these rapids—surprising, unusual events and challenges that are often outside the bounds of experience. And even though many of these challenges are one-offs, leaders cannot brush them aside as they will return in a different form to test them. In order to cope with this, leaders must have strong values and become resilient, not collapse at the first hurdle.

I have faced my own white-water rapids too, racing around the world into unexpected coaching situations, commuting between France and London, and being stretched to the limit by global obligations and travel. I hope 2011 will be a calmer ride, though I very much doubt this will be the case.

It will be interesting to see in the coming decade whether the leaders who have survived the last two years of economic turmoil will eventually set a new standard for leadership. It would be encouraging if they have emerged with stronger values, a greater sense of responsibility for their people and organizations, and a more innovative and flexible approach. There will of course still be leaders who look only for their own gain and success, at the expense of their people, organizations and even their communities. But I hope there will be enough who think differently and realize that leadership speaks more of duty and privilege than recognition and reward.

In the coming weeks, I am looking for stories of leaders who have made a difference, whose values and beliefs have visibly driven a different kind of leadership. You may wish to look back at HBR.org's conversation earlier this year on Imagining the Future of Leadership, which showed that we are at a critical stage in our thinking about leadership for the 21st century. Your views, as always, shape, inform and challenge our thinking, so please let us hear them.


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