By Pratap Nambiar for The Business Times

Leaders need to evolve and develop a new mindset to build a complex way of thinking and behaving to face their challenges.

A FEW things happened recently that got me thinking. Two weeks ago, I saw New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell saying on Fox News that city leaders were told that Covid-19 cases were contained as late as Lundi Gras on Feb 24, the day before New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations. When asked if she would have cancelled Fat Tuesday, she said hindsight is 20/20, but federal leaders did not know then the severity of the outbreak. Hence, she did not cancel the Mardi Gras event, which resulted in the infection of hundreds of people who were completely oblivious to the risk they were exposed to.

Secondly, I heard a very senior US federal leader say on CNN that if his efforts at helping people were not being appreciated, if he was not being treated right, he would not call them in the future with any offer of help. Why was this leader looking for appreciation – particularly from his political opponents, during such sensitive, delicate and extraordinarily challenging times? It boiled down to this for him: If you disrespect me, you are disrespecting the government – and I will take this personally.

Also, I heard CNN’s Fareed Zakaria interviewing our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. It was a proud moment when the CNN host compared Singapore’s efficient and effective response to the delayed and fitful approach of the US. I connected with what Mr Lee said about how Singaporeans trust the government to do the right thing. The confidence of the people comes from the way the leadership has communicated – always transparent, telling it straight. The focus has been on educating Singaporeans on preventive measures, communicating what the government is doing and planning, and how the people need to collaborate with the government.

Finally, I heard of some purely opportunist thinking of CEOs whose knee-jerk reactions will have a long-term negative impact on their shareholder value. One of them wants to sack the high-cost CFO and replace him with a much cheaper resource. Another wants her staff to surrender their 2019 performance bonuses and pay raises. Yet another is telling their people to take a 20 per cent salary cut across the board, without thinking through how hard the lower-salaried staff will be hurt. And one wants people to surrender their leave as they are working from home! Tragic. What I find even worse is that in each of these instances, the head of HR has simply succumbed and not taken a stand against these decisions.


Subject-object thinking

All these stimuli took me back several years ago, when I had the opportunity of spending time getting to understand the work of Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. They have written extensively about the stages of adult development, and the structure of the mind that shapes meaning-making – how we make sense of things – which influences how to perceive the world.

They developed a process called the subject-object interview where by listening to a leader’s language and expression, it would be possible to appreciate how evolved the mind is, and consequentially how complex the thinking is, which in turn shapes how complex decision making becomes.

Prof Kegan and Prof Lahey’s subject-object interview clarifies what aspects of meaning organising one has control over, can make use of, reflect upon (what is “object” in one’s meaning-making); and what aspects control one, what aspects one is captive to and identify with (what one is “subject” to in one’s meaning-making).

The leaders who find themselves subjected to external circumstances operate with a socialised mind without an internal locus of control, and eventually succumb to external pressures. Not having the relevant information or being in a position to make the right choices, they assign blame and project themselves as victims – their language usually is a give-away.

When we listen to the language of the CEOs subjecting their people to suffering, or the New Orleans mayor, what we find is a structure of mind that is not able to objectively analyse the circumstances and find alternatives to conventional responses to problem solving. These people do not notice contradictions and inconsistencies both within themselves and in the belief systems they adhere to. They are not able to see that the way a problem is framed is the problem.

And of course, when we listen to the language of a leader who is seeking appreciation or will not play ball, we are looking at a structure of mind that is unable to rise above the ego self and get a true appreciation of meaning-making in the context of meeting the adaptive challenge.


Adaptive challenge

An adaptive challenge refers to a set of problem-dilemmas that seemingly cannot be resolved by existing know how, and will require people to change their ways.

It becomes necessary to adapt to the changing circumstances, to the increasing level of complexity, and to dig deep to find the inner strength to overcome new challenges that have not been faced before.

What makes adaptive challenges difficult to deal with is that there is no precedent, there are no apparent solutions available, and as we are seeing in the case of this virus, every country is trying to work out what is best for their people.

Yet the crisis facing us now must be resolved if one is to save lives across the world and – in the case of organisations – survive and move to the next level of performance.

Leaders are under a great deal of pressure, forcing them to evolve and develop a new mindset, a new level of consciousness, a new belief system that will help them build a complex way of thinking and behaving to match the external challenges of complexity, ambiguity, volatility and disruption that they now face.

With each leap of evolution in their operating system, they will be able to take on more complex tasks with greater speed, greater ease and greater effectiveness as they master complexity to drive a higher level of performance. This has to happen in real time, like flying the plane and conducting repairs at the same time.

This is a time for a change in leadership thinking. An organisation or country cannot perform at a higher level than the consciousness of its leaders; leadership effectiveness equates to national/organisational effectiveness. If leaders do not reinvent themselves and develop the creative capacity to re-invent themselves – and through it the country/business- they will falter, and people will pay a huge price for it. Consciousness is the operating system of leadership performance; and unless leaders transition from one operating system to the next, they will succumb to the pressures of adaptive challenge.


The business of business

The business of business is people. The intangibles of spirit are more important than the tangibles of things. The tangibles, according to Herb Kelleher, the co-founder of SouthWest Airlines, can always be purchased. The intangibles are far more difficult for competition to replicate. Psychic satisfaction is what both employees and customers seek. Invest in them, and know that you are investing in the business.

Leaders have to model the way – in terms of how they interact, engage and lead people – that keeps them motivated and fulfilled to perform. Rasmus Hougaard in Mind of a Leader calls for leaders to be mindful, selfless, and compassionate with people to drive business success. In the context of the adaptive challenge the world is facing now, this becomes even more pertinent.


Government leadership

Experts, when measuring risk, need to ensure that there is no conflict in values, as demonstrated by the frontline healthcare workers who are willing to give up their lives and endanger the lives of their near and dear. So when the government makes decisions like choosing to keep the schools open, or closed, and getting people to stop socialising in any form and work from home, they must be aware of the thinking and behaviours of their citizens and the choices they will make.

Will they or will they not resist the temptation to leave the confines of their homes to spend a few hours in the malls with their children? Will they in their immature thinking succumb to the temptation of “let’s get as much socialising done before the shutdown kicks in”?

Many years ago, I lived in Moscow just after perestroika. Things were absolutely chaotic, and the poor underwent a great deal of suffering as the transition to a free economy happened all of a sudden, without any preparation or safety net. With hyper-inflation and no understanding of how global trade or currencies work, the man on the street faced severe exploitation and humiliation.

In India today, with the 21-day lockdown enforced without thinking through the ramifications, we have seen an exodus of the poor from urban cities to the villages. These are millions of migrant daily-wage earners without any savings, no way to pay rent and no food to eat, walking hundreds of miles to reach their homes so they do not have to pay rent.

The issue is not that the right decisions are not being made by leaders, but that they are made without a clear understanding of people’s behaviour or their circumstances in the context of a sudden change of policy. Leaders have to save lives/incomes and the economy/business for the future. In the meantime, let us hope and pray that someone will soon find a vaccine or a medication that will help us overcome this adaptive challenge that can otherwise hurt mankind in the millions.

Pratap Nambiar, Chartered Business Coach (ChBC), is the founder and chairman of Thought Perfect (Singapore), dedicated to coaching CEOs and senior leaders transform themselves for better performance. 

This article was originally published in The Business Times on April 24, 2020.


Thought Perfect offers leadership transformation coaching  for CEOs and senior business leaders to improve their business performance and maximise their potential. The company has coached senior executives of global multinationals based in Singapore as well as in other parts of the world, including India and the United States. If you are looking for an experienced executive  business coach to help your senior management, contact us now to discuss your business objectives and challenges.

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