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Leading in Our Uncertain Times: Be Real — Not a Hero

We are living in an era of “pervasive uncertainty,” and leaders need to adopt a more humble, open and committed approach to thrive under these circumstances, writes Wharton dean Geoffrey Garrett in this opinion piece.

With 2020 in full swing, I wanted to sit down to try to make some predictions about the new decade. It only took a few days of headlines to show me just how foolhardy and futile this was. We are living in an era of pervasive uncertainty: Stunningly improbable events are increasingly defining the world around us. Instead of trying to predict the future, we should focus on how to thrive under these new circumstances.

There is only one way to characterize 2020 so far: beyond unexpected. First the U.S. killing of Qasem Soleimani and fears of war with Iran, and then the coronavirus’s cascading impact not only on public health but also on the global economy. And throw in jaw-droppers in business (the doubling of the Tesla stock price in January) and sports (the tragic death of Kobe Bryant and his fellow passengers).

Zoom out a little to the past several years, and the song remains the same — from the election of Donald Trump and Brexit to the rise of artificial intelligence and the tech backlash.

It is increasingly clear that we are living in an era characterized by unprecedented uncertainty, with three defining characteristics:

1. Everything is unpredictable. For example, anyone who correctly predicts today who will win the Democratic presidential nomination is going to be luckier, not smarter, than the rest of us.

2. Everything is faster. This is a cliché, but sometimes clichés are nonetheless true. Just think about the literal explosion of uses for smartphones far beyond even Steve Jobs’ wildest imagination.

3. Everything is questionable. There are no facts, only parallel universes of alternate realities. Fake news, deep fakes and the undermining of truth and facts are disturbing and profound realities. MSNBC and Fox News report on the same events but share essentially no common information. What Bill Clinton and Tony Blair considered the “vital center” of politics and society is a vacuum today.

“To be successful, all organizations will need not only different leaders, but also a whole new style of leadership.”

All of this uncertainty makes leadership more important than ever. But how can anyone lead when no one knows what will happen next, nor does anyone agree on how to unite us to move forward?

On February 18, Mohamed A. El-Erian, chief economic adviser to Allianz and senior global fellow at the Lauder Institute, joined Wharton dean Geoffrey Garrett for a conversation entitled, “Unusual Uncertainty: The World in 2020 and Beyond,” as part of the Tarnopol Dean’s Lecture series at Wharton.

I think we need to turn our traditional thinking about leadership on its head. We can no longer afford to rely on heroic leaders who are inveterate risk-takers, from whom we want confident certainties to allay our anxieties, and whom we place on pedestals far above the rest of us (think quintessential wartime Winston Churchill). Instead, what we need today are anti-Churchillian leaders — leaders who admit to their limitations, are open about challenges, and reduce the distance between them and us. In short, we need our leaders to “be real,” in at least three ways:

1. Be humble: Don’t highlight your solutions without asking for input. We have always wanted our leaders to exhibit humility as an antidote to arrogance. But today humility needs to permeate the whole person of our leaders and throughout their organizations. It is critical that leaders acknowledge their own limitations and genuinely reach out to others to help them navigate through choppy and foggy waters.

2. Be open: Don’t obfuscate complex realities; be explainer-in-chief. One core element of leading in uncertain times is the ability to remain open about complex challenges as well as opportunities and to explain them in ways that resonate with and help galvanize the support of others. The task of being explainer-in-chief requires being able to make the complex simple, without becoming overly simplistic and without talking down to anyone.

3. Be committed: Don’t focus-group ideas and Photoshop yourself; stand up for who you are. Leaders cannot afford to be analytical automatons. One distinctive feature of millennials, and I suspect even more so of Gen Z, is that they are more mission-driven and purpose-oriented than previous generations. They demand nothing less in their leaders, which means the only way leaders can mobilize young people is by showing how committed they too are.

Wizened skeptics may point out how risky it is for leaders to admit their own limitations, to be open about complex realities, and to be authentic about who they are and what motivates them. Of course this is risky. But my feeling is that our uncertain times demand nothing less, and that the risks of following traditional heroic leaders are even higher.

To be successful, all organizations will need not only different leaders, but also a whole new style of leadership. Instead of charismatic risk-taking heroes, we should demand our leaders be more real — more humble in the face of uncertainty, more open about challenges (as well as opportunities) and more committed to a clear set of core values that govern how they choose to help us navigate this new uncertain normal.

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