Author C.S. Lewis once said that hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny, and the testing times of the Covid-19 pandemic have seen that statement ring true in the fact that individuals have brought the best out in themselves in a time of adversity and business leaders are seeing the positives of learning from having to manage a crisis.
Keith Woodford, development consultant, director, and founder at Aberdeen tech development company QFX Ltd, is a believer of the fact that one learns more in times of hardship than when things are going smoothly in the realms of operating a business.
Leadership in Focus
Speaking on the Leaders Council podcast, Woodford explained that he had always wanted to work for himself and start his own business, and an inevitable part of doing that would be having to learn on the job and do so quickly in order to succeed in a competitive environment.
Woodford said: “It was inevitable for me that I would work for myself. I wanted to create a business to generate things, it was never about material gain, and that desire has never waned. The difficulty of starting early with little experience of working under other people as I did, is that you will inevitably be in a position where you don’t always know what you’re doing.
“Early on in my journey building my own business, I found myself in this position. I call it ‘house on fire syndrome’: when the house is burning down, you learn how to use a fire extinguisher for instance. You learn an awful lot very quickly in testing times.
“I have benefited enormously from putting myself out there and tackling challenges head on early in my career. There is no substitute for experience, and it has proven invaluable.”
As well as living the experience of going it alone in the business world, Woodford also felt that he profited from the short time that he worked for other individuals and developed experience working under other directors and managers who helped mould his leadership style to that which he used in his own business today.
Woodford elaborated: “When I did work for other people, I saw that overly forceful leadership almost always failed. Empathy, understanding and problem solving always presented itself as a better and more influential approach, and those who took that stance with me had a real effect on me as a person.”
Despite the benefits that good leadership brought for him on his journey in business, Woodford feels nonetheless that effective leadership does not receive the recognition it deserves.
He said: “I don’t think good leadership is recognised enough. It is forgotten and there is some good leadership out there. Within the emergency services I have seen come incredible leadership and poor leadership alike and both have an effect. There are some amazing examples of leadership day to day in society and we don’t show enough appreciation of that.”
When asked to explain his thoughts on the hallmarks of world class leadership, one of the cornerstones of being a strong leader which Woodford immediately referred to was the need for adaptability and flexibility, the need for which has been laid bare by the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on business.
Woodford said: “A leader has to have lots of different hats. There are many different character requirements of a leader that need to match with the different personalities that one has to work with, be they colleagues or clients. A leader must be flexible and adaptable in understanding how people think and view the world.
“We have seen this through the Covid-19 situation. A key part of being a flexible and adaptable leader is the ability to empathise with how people feel and get on their level. There is a lot of Covid- related anxiety and a lot of people are fearful, living in denial, and are scared for their jobs. Good leadership is harnessing these reactions, calming people and building a sense of community. You must pull people in and make them know they aren’t alone. It’s hugely important right now.
“Weighing up being proactive against letting things play out and reacting to those circumstances, I do not believe that there is any one correct formula applicable to all situations. The way to respond as a leader depends on the nature of the situation. I have seen that with some significant issues, it can be dangerous to let things play out so it is necessary to make an early judgement call, but when making that decision you must understand the context of what is going on and consider the bigger picture, and if a change of direction is needed later on, you must be willing to change course.”
In its own leadership through the Covid-19 crisis, the government acknowledged the need for flexibility in its communication with the public, making the decision to hold daily televised press briefings from Downing Street. Following their success as they ran for three months until the end of June drawing large viewing figures, the government has planned to make televised briefings a regular feature from the autumn. However, the move has come under scrutiny from the House of Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who is worried that the plans run the risk of sidelining Parliament.
Sir Lindsay told the BBC that major announcements should always be made in Parliament first, rather than be delivered to the media, adding that if MPs were to learn of policy changes through the media in future, it would make it more difficult for them to scrutinise changes and hold the government to account.
The planned daily briefings would mirror those that take place daily from the White House in the US.
The government hopes that a permanent series of briefings will increase public engagement and help convey vital messages, but Sir Lindsay feels that Parliament should remain the venue where MPs and the public are informed of what will happen going forward.
He said: "You know the worry I've had - that statements should be made to the House first. Once you've made that statement, by all means go and have a press conference. But do it after, not before.
"If there's something new to come out and you want to tell the world, tell Parliament and let the world watch it from Parliament's eyes."
"Members are elected to hold the government to account and we've got to allow them to do so. And if you're briefing the press first, that's not the way forward.
"It's not good for Downing Street, it's not good for relations and it doesn't endear your own backbenchers. They want to know that they count and that they matter. And I think that's the way forward for all of us."
Currently in the UK, lobby reporters receive details from Downing Street briefings that occur twice a day. These are on record and can be quoted, but they are not aired.
The Speaker added that the two-metre social distancing rule would remain in place in the Palace of Westminster for some time and Parliament would not return to normal for the foreseeable future.
Sir Lindsay said: “I can’t see that [Parliament returning to normal procedure] happening tomorrow, let’s put it that way. I think we’re a little bit further away from normality as we knew it.”
Leadership in History
On July 28, 2005, the Provision Irish Republican Army called an end to its thirty-year long armed campaign in Northern Ireland, adding that it would pursue exclusively peaceful means.
Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein’s president at the time, called the move a “courageous and confident initiative”, while UK prime minister Tony Blair hailed it a “step of unparalleled magnitude” toward bringing peace to the island of Ireland.
Blair said: "It is what we have striven for and worked for throughout the eight years since the Good Friday Agreement."