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Alan Watkins

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4D leadership: a sustainable way to lead through Covid-19?

A certain type of leadership is required to get us through the troubling times. But is HR ready to adopt this different approach?

Humanity is in the middle of a crisis. There are five waves that will hit every country in the world and the challenge from COVID-19 is three dimensional. 

  1. Wave 1: Medical – the personal impact

  2. Wave 2: Health System – potential overwhelm of resources

  3. Wave 3: Economic Impact – jobs, government funding

  4. Wave 4: Systems changes – changes everything

  5. Wave 5: Unintended consequences of COVID -19

The first wave of the crisis is medical, immunological and psychological. With degrees in all three, I feel somewhat qualified to comment on how wave one is impacting us. 

When human beings feel threatened by anything the natural response is to go into a fight/flight or play dead mode. We are already seeing many individuals and organisations ‘play dead’ or go into ‘bunker mentality‘. This means they tend to shut down everything and do as little as possible.

Many organisations have stopped doing anything that they would consider not an ‘emergency‘. Effectively they are ignoring normal business. At an individual level many people are self-isolating even if they have no symptoms. The mind-set is play dead and wait for the threat to pass.  

Whilst understandable we think this is the exact opposite of a healthy response and comes with significant risk to a company when it needs to fire back up. If people go into hibernation mode then waking them back up – assuming that during the hibernation period the organisation doesn’t run out of cash or revenue – may be difficult.

Therefore, playing dead may exacerbate the commercial downturn of the hibernation period. We think the healthy response is to accelerate into the virtual environment, get good at working this way and embrace the benefits that this crisis may bring the company in the future.

We need to make sure that when we connect in the virtual world we do so in a more meaningful way.

The role of the leader in a virtual world

In times of crisis leaders need to step up in new and different ways. Rather than play dead or disappear leaders need to be courageous and help their organisations embrace change. Specifically, organisations need to accelerate into a digitally enabled world where virtual interactions will increasingly become the norm.

Those individuals and organisations who become highly skilled in the virtual world will be ahead of the curve and will survive better. Virtual meetings are different from normal meetings. When we become skilled at working virtually, we will indeed save time, become more deeply connected with each other in more meaningful ways and end up polluting the planet less because we are travelling less. In short, working virtually is a much more sustainable way of working. 

4D leadership

If leaders are more courageous in the face of the threat, they have changed how they are BEING. If we become more digitally savvy, we have changed the way we work and what we are DOING and when we become more effective at connecting in the virtual world, we have changed our way of RELATING. The only sustainable response is multi-dimensional in these three dimensions of being, doing and relating. 

What we have largely seen from governments so far is sensible guidance about hygiene and hand washing, stopping travel, and avoiding contact with others. This is all DOING advice. There is a deafening silence on how we should BE or how we should RELATE. 

Staying healthy is not just about washing our hands – we also need to reduce panic and anxiety. If we panic, we will increase our cortisol levels. Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone and it impairs our immunity and makes us more susceptible to infection. It makes it more likely that if we do get infected the infection will be more severe, will last longer and will make us more likely to infect others.

Covid-19 may be that game changer where we really look at our current systems and ways of operating, recognise the paradox inherent within them and find a better way.

But if we remain optimistic and positive in the face of the challenge, we will increase our DHEA levels, the body’s antidote to cortisol. DHEA will improve our immunity, increase our resistance and reduce the threat we are to our communities. 

We are not helpless in the face of a threat. There is something positive we can do and that is BE more optimistic and develop our ability to regulate our emotions. Likewise, we need to make sure that when we connect in the virtual world we do so in a more meaningful way. We are social animals and we need to connect for our own wellbeing. If we become more mature and more sophisticated in the three dimensions BEING, DOING and RELATING we have unlocked the fourth dimension and have started to develop 4D-leadership, which is exactly what is required right now.

Achieving 4D leadership

4D leadership is the more sustainable way of doing business. This is particularly true as the crisis moves from the health and psychological threat of wave 1 to the potential of an overwhelmed health system in wave 2 as the volume of infected cases puts pressure on our health care systems. 

4D leadership is the only sustainable way we will get through the economic impact of wave 3 and come out the other side of wave 4, which is when many systems change and result in the unintended consequences we will see in wave 5.

The starting point to developing 4D leadership is to think about how you would quantify an increase in your maturity as a human BEING; how you could measure a deeper interpersonal connection in how you are RELATING, as well as assessing how much more sophisticated you are at DOING things.

Will Covid-19 be a game changer?

In the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008 there were plenty of optimistic commentators and hopeful citizens who believed that the crisis was the tipping point. It was going to be the game changing moment that historians would look back on as the point in our recent human history where we recalibrated and actively and collectively chose a different, more inclusive and sustainable future. 

It didn’t happen.  

Covid-19 may be that game changer where we really look at our current systems and ways of operating, recognise the paradox inherent within them and find a better way.

Along with my co-author Nick Dalton, we wrote about the P-waves that have swept through business. Most organisations’ HR function has moved through the Paternalism, Power and Process waves and currently sit in the Profit wave.

Currently the leading edge of HR is the People wave but there is now an urgent need for HR to embrace the two P-waves yet to come; Paradox and Planet. In our book ‘HR (R)Evolution: Change The Workplace, Change The World we reveal how HR must lead and address the polarities, complexity and paradox while pushing forward into a world that looks after the planet and all her inhabitants.

And the time for HR to show leadership is right now. 

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