Circa March 2020: World War-C is upon us. Our world as we know it is on an indefinite pause. We have moved into the seemingly safer cocoons of our homes. Work has come to a standstill. The unseen enemy has slammed sudden brakes on all our lives. Nothing is certain anymore. Rulebooks appear like they were written in a parallel universe. A nervous peek into our bank accounts reveal we have cash for just over a month. Bills to pay, staff to sustain, a home to run and family to support. Several billion citizens of the world in an identical tizzy, and no leader who was taught how to deal with such an existential crisis.

Here began the time of our lives – a time to discover, a time to create, a time to heal. This was the perfect time to relearn the fine art of leadership. A month into what later became one of the longest lockdowns on the planet, a first cohort of leaders I knew came together to question, introspect and learn. As more cohorts* assembled in the weeks and months that followed, we moved from demystifying chaos to a new set of certainties, from angst to agility, from the great pause to robust resilience. Through this paper, I hope to chart the journey of the mind of a diverse set of almost a 100 leaders*, in the hope that we regain some clarity and find some urgent answers.

Leadership can get lonely. Defiance is confused with arrogance. Poise intersects with apathy. However, standing at the gates, looking towards a new way of life, we stared at Hope as a mysterious unknown, with a sense of wonderment. The future awaited us at the other end of a labyrinth – for everyone the challenges looked uncertain, ambiguous and bumpy. The long uphill, uncharted maze was certainly exciting and adventurous, but patience, innovation, vigilance and persistence had become essential skills.

We had all become acutely aware of the infinite possibilities of today. However, the togetherness of cooperation is the succour we crave and even the fiercest of competitors are learning to shelve the ego of the ‘I-know-best’ and the futile ‘I told you so’. Such is the gift of this audacity of hope that we are enticed to grab our own blank sheets of paper to restart, reimagine and renew.

As leaders we also tend to grab the benefit of hindsight. However, our assumptions, our postulates, our frameworks have all proved a Grand Illusion. ‘I know exactly how to do this’ can perhaps not be repeated for a fairly long time. The acceptance of being hopelessly ignorant is perhaps the beginning of learning a brand new way. Self-righteousness has no place in our New world. But, what compromises will we need to make while choosing between the ideological perfect and the achievable good?

Making Crucial Trade-offs

When it is decision time, as leaders the choices we make are rarely perfect. They are necessary, given our unique new circumstances. The first compromise we all made was to trade-off personal face to face interactions with online platforms. What was until yesterday considered inappropriate and impersonal became acceptable and efficient. However, with every additional task that we managed to do online, demands of work further eroded personal time and space. Experiential learning took place in a very different virtual dimension and engaging teams needed very different methods.

Having teams close by versus working remotely, invasion of private space with work tasks, travelling versus discovering new experiences online, giving up street food for home cooked meals, home schooling our children, sustaining long distance relationships, human touch versus health concerns, retaining quality clients while worrying about quarterly results are some of the trade-offs many of us dealt with. These choices had consequences on money, time, accountability, trust, predictability, health, perfection, nature, celebrations and efficiency.

It is now time to rebuild. We must have the courage to face the unexpected, to be fearless and optimistic. The excitement of unlimited opportunities awaits us. Agility however, is the key. We must be open to explore and experiment while we hustle and act. The skill of dealing with adversity while always radiating positivity must be learnt on the go.

As responsible leaders, let us now start dreaming of a more empathetic, values-based, sensitive, recession-proof, accommodating, understanding, cleaner, responsible, agile, resilient and healthy world. We now hold the crucible of hope. We must rise above the ordinary and renew our pledge to lead.

The new reality is intimidating. But it is also inspiring. Suddenly everything is up for grabs and this is our new world to shape. What a time to be alive!

The blog is an excerpt from the paper written by Dr Rahul Mirchandani, Chairman & Managing Director, Aries Agro Limited & National Chairman (2009-10), Confederation of Indian Industry’s Young Indians. Click here to read the complete paper.

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