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Who dares wins: Leadership strategies in the face of adversity

The more things change, the more things change. That’s just the way it is these days. As we learn how to navigate one complexity, a new one emerges.

The pandemic may be receding right now, but the reality we’re entering next is unusual. Rising inflation, the threat of stagnation, an increasingly volatile geopolitical environment and a plethora of evolving social, environmental and governance (ESG) priorities are redefining the market every day. Businesses, and their people, are living through unprecedented levels of VUCA—that now familiar military acronym for environments ripe with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

But, you know me: I’m an optimist. As complicated as this environment may feel, I am increasingly confident today’s challenges also represent a chance to go beyond simply ‘building back’ what was, to create a better, more resilient way forward. I’m realistic; I know this won’t happen on its own. It’s going to take truly exceptional leadership.

Some of the greatest leaders are born of the most difficult circumstances. Renowned mountaineer, entrepreneur and leadership speaker Jamie Clarke has climbed the world’s tallest peaks on every continent. That includes Mt. Everest, twice. He crossed the hottest land on the planet (by camel, no less) and mounted expeditions around the world before starting a second life, as an entrepreneur. Jamie recently empowered a rapt audience (myself included) at a recent event for EY clients and employees with seemingly endless examples of the ways leaders can transform ‘failure’ into feedback. I was struck by just how many leadership parallels exist between adventuring, and business. Both involve a need to overcome obstacles in the face of complicated VUCA times.

He told of thwarted climbs and incomplete missions, underscoring the importance of diverse thinking when solving potentially life-threatening challenges. As a leader, Jamie says honest conversations among diversely skilled and experienced team members are critical to sound decision-making. He’s absolutely right. When we rally different perspectives in a psychologically safe workspace, we can develop the strategies that today’s business complexity requires. Getting there necessitates a certain amount of vulnerability on our part as leaders. That’s essential.

Jamie also spoke to the significance of creating a space where every contribution and opinion is valued. In his earliest days as a mountaineer, Jamie found himself jumping on any possible role to get onto an expedition. He overcame his own preconceived notions about the nature of that work to do even the most menial jobs in the best way he could. Today, Jamie recognizes and celebrates team members who do the same, valuing every contribution that keeps the group moving forward. This spirit can make a world of difference in a market where VUCA influences every step we take. Any work that adds value is good work, and we must lead accordingly.

Above all, Jamie reframes setbacks as lessons learned, and applies that knowledge to the next iteration of a project or mission, until he succeeds. When we cultivate that spirit in a team at work, we tell people there is merit in trying, even if things don’t go as hoped. Leading in a way that enables folks with permission to experiment can transform the trajectory of an entire organization (especially in light of so many unknowns).

If ever there was a time to look around and shout, ‘VUCA!’, this is most certainly it. That said, we create a special kind of magic when we lead with courage and work together. Doing so—in the office or atop a mountain—fosters our capacity for innovation. It gives way to creative solutions. All of this helps our people and the clients we serve to thrive no matter what economic, geopolitical or societal uncertainty arises.

I’ve never been more convinced that this is the time to invest strategically in leading differently. The way we guide our teams right now will define our results for many years to come. Is it tough out there? Yes. Can daring leadership help? Absolutely. As Jamie says: the summit is out there. Let’s get to it.

Authored by Lance Mortlock (EY Canada Managing Partner, Energy & Haskayne School of Business Visiting Professor), author of Disaster Proof: Scenario Planning for a Post Pandemic Future


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