Purposeful Leadership in a Time of Crisis

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Earlier this month, GlobeScan hosted a special webinar and online collaboration forum on Purposeful Leadership in a Time of Crisis where we looked across the world at how business is responding to the COVID-19 crisis and what more business could do to demonstrate even more purposeful leadership.
GlobeScan’s Global Landscape Review of over 200 corporate responses to COVID-19 provides insights on how businesses have moved rapidly from the initial stages of business adaptation and philanthropy to creating shared value and using a collaborative approach to demonstrate purposeful leadership during this time of crisis.
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In our study we also evaluated the collective corporate response through the lens of purpose, performance, and participation – GlobeScan’s Trusted Leadership Framework. It is interesting to see that while the collective response has excelled in terms of collaboration, internal and external engagement, and activation through products and services, there is definitely a lack of a unifying purpose, executive leadership, and companies working toward a systemic change or being future-ready.
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During the discussion in our online forum, the collective contributions and examples shared by more than 320 participants across 47 countries helped identify barriers and further opportunities to creating impact and demonstrating purposeful leadership for corporations. Here is a look at the key insights from our discussion:

Barriers to taking more impactful action

Despite many inspiring corporate responses, significant challenges remain which have hindered speedy and impactful initiatives. We identified five main barriers:

  1. A lack of insightful leadership – Organizations need the guidance of leadership (at the organizational level and in global governance) to inform and inspire action.
  2. Fragile finances – A decline in revenue and low financial resilience is a critical barrier for many organizations that may have the intention, but not the resources, to act at scale.
  3. Balancing priorities – Many organizations are grappling with how they can effectively balance the care of their employees with the care of the greater community.
  4. Uncertainty in the future – Not knowing the duration of the crisis or what the outcomes will be is a key reason why many organizations have been reluctant to act, with many simply focusing on surviving the “now.”
  5. A lack of coordination – With many companies focusing inwards, inter-organization and inter-government coordination has suffered.

Changing expectations and implications for corporate leadership post-crisis

There is an implicit need to shift from aspirational promises to action on the most pressing issues and demonstrating impact will be at the core when it comes to rebuilding trust with consumers. Implications for businesses can be summarized across three areas:

  1. Putting purpose at the coreThere will be a greater need to understand, articulate, and strategically plan around purpose as it becomes even more central to business strategy, and there will be greater demand from consumers on this.
  2. Focus on sustainability Businesses will be under increased scrutiny by stakeholders to ensure that they are sustainable – environmentally, economically, and socially. This will be an opportunity for businesses to establish leadership in sustainability, particularly in countries where it has been low on the agenda.
  3. More collaboration There will be a rise in the emergence and/or significance of pre-competitive collaboration within industries. The emphasis will be on collective impact to solve common challenges.

Lessons in resilient leadership from COVID-19

Many lessons in leadership will come out of the crisis, for corporate and other types of organizations. These lessons will form the basis of significant organizational change and inform corporate planning for generations to come. Notable lessons include:

  • Risks need to be acted on and not just identified, and action plans should include scenarios such as these.
  • Open and transparent communication about challenges posed by crises is crucial, and having the courage to admit your faults is even more critical.
  • The importance of showing compassion in difficult times needs to be recognized and embraced by organizations.
  • Being dynamic and flexible is critical to survival.
  • There is a need for strong inter-dependent relationships with stakeholders that goes beyond the norm of employees, shareholders, and customers.

Hopes for 2021

We have many battles to focus on before we arrive at a post-COVID timeline, and we will face enormous challenges in economic growth, behavior change, purposeful leadership, technological innovation, and addressing climate change.
However, the world could benefit greatly from a collective sense of optimism at this juncture. As businesses move from the current crisis mode to a “rebuilding phase” and then to a “new leadership phase,” this is the right time to assess their responses and re-calibrate to ensure the next wave of initiatives helps them and their stakeholders to transition to the new normal. Companies that remain committed to their purpose and sustainability are now more important than ever.