“She was in the middle of a magic show, inside a magic box. And then all the lights went out so she struggled to get out of the box.” Or so tells the mother of Rosalyn Rincon, from Blackpool, England. Training and precision are essential for pulling off a good magic trick but this counts for little when something dramatic suddenly occurs like a power cut. Unfortunately this was only the beginning of a nightmare evening for Ms Rincon and her colleagues who were working on the now infamous cruise-liner, Costa Concordia.
The £372m cruise-liner with state-of-the-art navigation equipment, an experienced crew, repeating the same voyage it makes 52 times per year, ran aground just metres off the Italian coastline. The ship capsized so quickly that the lifeboats and safety rafts on the port side became unusable. It meant that many of the ship’s emergency procedures no longer functioned or were invalid. For a time staff tried to help stranded passengers or colleagues without being clear if rescue was possible.
I think the plight of Costa Concordia’s crew bears some similarities to the challenges facing many leaders today: Leadership is in crisis. The world is now nowhere nearly as predictable as it has been for the last fifty years. Consequently we are unable to rely on what has guided us in the past to steer us safely into the future. We are therefore left with a challenge few leaders have grappled with before: managing the no longer and the not yet. What we relied on no longer exists or is uncertain (e.g. the euro) and a new operating blueprint has not yet emerged. No wonder businesses and governments, let alone cruise-liners, are capsizing!
So what should leaders be doing? Whilst the world around us is uncertain I remain convinced that the principles of leadership have not changed. We still need to, for example:
- Clarify purpose & values
- Articulate a picture of the future that is better than today
- Design and execute a plan to arrive at that future (including the deployment of systems & processes to help keep on track)
- Implement numerous ways to engage customers, staff, shareholders, communities, and other interested parties into that plan
Frameworks, models, principles and even luck will certainly help leaders to become significantly more effective. Yet even these are insufficient. For me one of the richest qualities of a leader is having the courage to unashamedly lead and not to give up. I like how Mary Lou Anderson puts it:
Leaders are called to stand
in that lonely place
between the no longer and the not yet
and intentionally make decisions
that will bind, forge, move
and create history.
We are not called to be popular,
we are not called to be safe,
we are not called to follow,
we are the ones called to take risks,
we are the ones called to change attitudes;
to risk displeasures,
we are the ones called to gamble our lives,
for a better world.