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AW3 2020 Health & Safety HUMAN RESOURCES NEWS

Follow the leader: why strong leadership matters


Dr Richard Plenty and Terri Morrissey consider the importance of strong leadership and the management qualities that will be needed to help airports survive and bounce back in these uncertain times.

Despite the fact that a global pandemic had been widely anticipated and predicted for many years, the world has been caught completely unprepared for the scale, speed and impact of the COVID-19 virus and, in the space of less than three months, everything has changed.

There are, of course, a number of dimensions to the crisis. First and foremost, it is a human tragedy, with the hundreds of thousands of lives lost engendering fear and anxiety.

But it is also an economic and social disaster, with massive job losses globally. And, arguably, few industries have been more badly affected than aviation, where passenger traffic has effectively ground to a halt, potentially posing an existential threat to the industry as a whole.

Leadership challenges

We will be faced with some huge leadership challenges as the industry strives to work out how it can best survive and operate.

Indeed, the circumstances the world faces are ‘unprecedented’, a word which innovation thought-leader Dr Christian Busch points out is itself currently experiencing an exponential rise in usage.

There are enormous immediate issues to deal with: redesigning airports and their operations so they comply with health and safety requirements, in particular social distancing; dealing with the economic reality, including reducing variable costs through redundancies and use of technology; and looking at how best to get airports up and running again, which will involve innovative and more flexible working practices.

Difficult decisions will have to be made. Organisations will have to be restructured, costs cut, and people released in order for airports to survive. And all of this needs to be done with an eye on the future rather than as a kneejerk reaction to what has just happened.

Still, it is in looking to the unpredictable future that leaders are likely to face their toughest challenge. Faced with this degree of uncertainty, John Holland-Kaye, CEO of Heathrow Airport, argues that leadership needs to help shape the future; to use the power of technology; to build scenarios for recovery and also to anticipate future shocks.

In a recent article in Business Travel News (May 4, 2020) he said: “Whilst Heathrow will continue to be guided by the medical experts, we will be showing leadership in assessing what all options could look like at our airport in the future. Change is coming, and Heathrow will be at the front of helping to shape what that looks like.”

Who will take the lead?

Who will lead these changes? In the current crisis, many people are looking for a ‘strong leader’ to take them forward. Some are waiting to be told what to do next; some are asking for clarity; others simply ache for a reduction of uncertainty.

In the immediate stages of recovery, a top down directive approach may well be necessary. But it is unlikely to be sustainable in the longer term. In times of uncertainty, over-reliance on instructions and orders from a single leader is risky. No-one has all the answers, nor can they have knowledge of all the circumstances.

Traditional ‘command and control’ structures tend to break down under the pressures of information overload, unclear evidence, and the need to take immediate decisions. In practice, leadership is necessary at many levels.

Typically, local leaders and teams emerge who are able to assess their own situation and take swift action. The most effective role that senior leaders can play is to choreograph change, providing a sense of purpose and meaning.

This allows the development of leadership capacity and capability, and ensures it is channelled positively and connected to a broader vision.

How can this best be done? If we stop for a moment and ask ourselves the question, “What are people really looking for?”, the answers most likely to come back are “Reassurance things will eventually get better”, “A sense of direction” and “A way through all of this”.

Those senior leaders who are credible, trusted, and can set priorities are likely to be able to meet these needs. Those who can do this and empower and inspire others to come up with their own answers are likely to be the most successful.

Developing leadership competencies 

What combination of skills and competencies are needed to meet these demands? Many modern leadership models are variants of a three-factor approach, highlighting skills that are likely to be needed in three principal areas, generally categorised as follows:

  • Strategic/business thinking: Seeing the big picture; critical thinking; systems thinking; innovation; commercial mindset
  • Building relationships: Teamwork; collaboration; networking; influencing and persuasion; emotional intelligence; empathy; communication
  • Self-mastery: Taking personal responsibility; managing emotions; self-awareness; resilience, humour; keeping up to date, relevant and current

In times of uncertainty, we believe that there is a fourth area of competence that is sometimes overlooked by writers on leadership, which is even more critical. This area we call our ‘core’.

This ‘core’ is central to our being and consists of our values, ethics, and character. It is essentially who we are, what we stand for, our personal authenticity. It is about our sense of purpose.

In a world where decisions sometimes have to be made on the basis of scant information, where being trusted is essential, having a strong core is vital.   

In our new book, Uncertainty Rules? Making Uncertainty Work for You we use the Irish shamrock as a metaphor for how a person’s ‘core’ character, personal values and purpose are an integrating and supportive element for the different competencies of strategic thinking, self-mastery and building relationships. We call these the Richmor Competencies.

One person who exemplifies all these qualities was Nelson Mandela, whose character, sense of purpose, intellect, self- discipline, and interpersonal skills enabled him to survive over twenty-five years of imprisonment and still manage to change the apartheid system in South Africa.

The way ahead

At the most senior levels of leadership, developing collaboration and co-operation between aviation, health and international bodies is likely to become an area of increasing importance.

For those working in airport management, critical thinking and innovation skills will be tested to the full; and for those leading teams in the front line, resilience and mental toughness skills are likely to be necessary for the foreseeable future.

We will need leaders at all levels with the competencies to make this happen. These skills can be developed systematically through exposure to different roles, coaching and formal training. Investment in upskilling and reskilling those who remain will help faster recovery.

The principal leadership lesson we can learn is that our airports need to be resilient and designed for sustainability as well as
efficient operation.

We need to consider a broader range of scenarios when making plans. A multi-disciplinary approach to assessing risk is important. The unthinkable can happen. We need to learn to expect the unexpected.

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