Growing Pains – Leadership in a Post-Pandemic World

With the approach of spring, there’s cautious optimism about moving beyond the pandemic and reconfiguring the global economy towards a more sustainable model of growth. We think this optimism should be leavened with some in-depth thinking about what resources leaders need in order to both survive and thrive in this ‘change of era’ (to refer back to Nik Gowring and Chris Langdon’s concept that we explored in our September 2020 Leadership forum).  

With this in mind, we thought ‘growth’ would be a good theme to kick off our 2021 series of Whole Environment Leadership Forums. 

Building on the theme of ‘want’ versus ‘need’ that we explored in our 2020 leadership forums as a whole, we began with the following notion: 

‘Growth is what happens in the gap between the plan and the outcome’, and referenced Ex-President Eisenhower’s maxim: ‘Plans are useless but planning is indispensable.’ 

We situated ‘the plan’ as something we might want, for example, a roadmap out of the pandemic, a piece of strategic change, or a leadership goal. In this context, ‘outcome’ might be where we land in reality once we’ve had to adapt to the facts on the ground, make compromises, build alliances, and overcome setbacks. The learning that arises in the gap between the plan and the outcome, meanwhile, could be seen as what we need in order to dismantle obstacles and identify opportunities.  

Participants discussing their leadership journey in light of the growth theme included leaders from insurance, branding, membership, marketing, PR, construction, wellbeing, consultancy and food. What follows are the five main themes that emerged from the discussion, accompanied by some illustrative verbatim, and concluding with our summary thoughts. 

The discussion started at the micro level of personal development, and progressed to the macro level of society, economics and sustainability. A broad canvas! 

Does profound growth come from pain and suffering, or can it come from joy as well? 

There was some debate about whether pain, either in the form of professional setbacks and failures, or personal suffering, offers the most effective form of learning, and therefore growth, or whether growth can also arise from pleasure and success. 

A leader in branding noted: 

‘Growth is pain. But it’s only through pain that I find growth. Everything else is just getting lucky. I used to avoid pain at all costs because I loved the world of pleasure. What that meant was hiding, covering and burying.’ 

A leader in food saw an archetypal relationship between suffering and growth in the story of the Christ’s crucifixion. 

‘That reminds me of the word Gethsemane, as in the garden where Jesus faced his impending death in the Bible. The word means pressure. You have to come out of the other side of pain in order to find growth. My team has experienced a lot of pressure and had a hard time this last year. What makes it more tolerable is keeping an eye on where in the story that connects us to, and what the change is for.’ 

A leader in construction, meanwhile wondered: 

‘What about love? Surely that is one of the most profound ways of growing?’ 

There needs to be a continued shift away from economic, bottom-line growth, toward sustainable, broader stakeholder value-focussed growth

Participants saw growth as a keyword at both the micro, self-development level, and the macro, economic level. Thinking of the nexus of pleasure, pain and growth led to thoughts about economic growth and the most profound challenges faced by the world in this current ‘change of era’. 

The same leader in construction wondered: 

‘Is economic growth what we want, given that resources are limited? Take the climate change crisis, we have to change how we value things, how we live and work. The pandemic is forcing us to confront that. Our notion of economic growth needs to change because it’s not sustainable.’ 

A leader in wellbeing reflected on his journey from leading a marketing group to starting a wellbeing business:

‘We have been trapped in a system where greed and growth are synonymous. How do we break that cycle as leaders?  I’ve been battling with that for two years, trying to figure out an economic model for my business where I can follow my heart rather than my head, follow my values and principles. I’ve had a lot economic pain trying to make the transition!’ 

A leader in consultancy noted: 

‘We have to decide what kind of growth we want.’ 

Echoing the broad sentiment, another leader noted: 

‘Growth can be terrible if it’s bad growth.’ 

Sustainable growth requires boundaries, within which we can redefine our notion of what growth should be

A leader in PR reflected on how boundaries and sustainability and closely linked at both personal and societal levels: 

‘As an emotional leader, I have always given all of myself in every aspect of my work. I think that’s partially fuelled some of my success in leadership. But as I get older, I’ve learned more about the importance of boundaries and how this thinking doesn’t limit potential but gives you a better perspective of where and how you should apply yourself. The notion that economic growth is never-ending and there’s no cost isn’t realistic – there has to be consequence. There has to be boundaries.’

Applied on a macro-economic level, Kate Raworth’s Donut Economics model was referenced as a way of placing a boundary between sustainable and unsustainable growth. On the right side of that boundary, economic growth could be reframed as growth in social capital, for example. 

One leader reflected on their experience of trying to bring this idea to life in their work: 

‘Looking at the world there is lots of darkness and challenge when it comes to food. We throw too much away. And way too many people are excluded from sharing good food with others. If you do food well you can start to heal some of those things. So, rather than taking over running our family food business and a team of 140, I started a low-cost social food initiative with a BBQ and a washing up bowl. Every time we had a meal I would invite as diverse a group as I could think of. The pandemic has been a huge challenge, but over the last year we’ve served 60,000 meals.’ 

Progressive change is being increasingly driven by the corporate world, but then agency is taken away from the sovereign state? 

A leader in insurance had been impressed by businesses increasingly picking up on leading progressive change in areas where governments have been slow to act: 

‘I think B corps are really interesting. I’ve been following a double unicorn business with a £2bn turnover and a progressive growth agenda. I think that’s a powerful way forward, change being driven by business.’ 

Others wondered about the wider, unforeseen cost of business driving change. This from a consultancy perspective: 

‘It is a 2-edged sword. Corporates have been slowly usurping the power of the state, which means the restraining force of the state is being killed by the financial system. In Sweden we can’t do anything about the big tech giants. We are in the grip of big companies. We need to take more personal responsibility, even if it’s more painful.’ 

Another view was: 

‘Corporations are shifting from shareholder businesses to stakeholder businesses. Consumers have the power to destroy unethical businesses overnight. Business that we think are too big to fail.’ 

There is a new language developing around non-economic value

Everyone agreed that to talk adequately about growth, we need to better describe what we value, beyond financial and strategic benchmarks. The following statements summed the sentiment up well. 

From a construction perspective: 

‘Business needs to capture the true cost of growth, not just the monetary cost.’ 

And from a PR perspective: 

‘We are developing a language around communicating value in a non-monetary sense. There’s value in people, brand and sustainable business models.’ 

There was, however, a cautionary note of scepticism from a wellbeing perspective: 

‘I worry that it can become a tickbox for corporates, just like Business in the Community became 10 years ago. It’s great running a social enterprise project from the heart. But large enterprises are built the other way around. How do you change that?’ 

Summary

An over-arching thread in this discussion for me was about how we manage finite resources. 

On the micro level, in the attempt to realise a plan, what obstacles and opportunities do we encounter as we attempt to action our plan? What compromises do we need to make when our plan meets other people and their plans? What gatekeepers do be we need to negotiate with? What conflicts do we need to resolve? What sacrifices do we need to make? What learning do we need to acquire? 

All these challenges draw on finite resources. For example, finite insight into what informs our situation, finite empathy and the capacity to listen in the face of conflict, the finite good will of others to accommodate our plans, and finite strength and self-belief to drive on despite the inevitable setbacks and failure. 

Finite resources at the macro, economic and environmental level are well documented and need no further mention here. But perhaps we’d do well to remind ourselves that we will need the above human resources in spades if we are to navigate our way through this ‘change of era’. At both micro and macro levels, the growth of these recourses is not only needed, it is also potentially limitless. Does that growth have to be painful? I’d put it another way. Is it realistic to think that growth, in whatever shape or form it takes, comes without a cost? 

The theme for our May forum is ‘progress.’ 

Tom Cotton Founder, Mind Environment 30th March, 2021

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