Posted: 18 Jun. 2020 5 min.

Will the COVID-19 crisis re-write the history books on leadership? The five attributes of the new, undisruptable CEO

Topic: Resilient Leadership

For the first time in many years, even experienced executives might approach their entire organisation with a beginner’s mindset.

I was actually reluctant to write this article. Not because I am not happy to share my view on leadership during this important time of crisis, but more so because so many things have already been said about leadership over the last 25 years.

From the Great Man leadership theory to contingency principles to all kinds of leadership presumptions based on traits, behaviour, participation, relationships, situational analysis and power.

However, in a time like this, it IS important to talk about leadership: how leadership changes, how it complexifies and how it plays out in a time where global forces of digitalisation, climate change and the demand for social justice force us to re-visit many of our old assumptions.

In the United States, some of my Deloitte colleagues have gathered their thoughts in what they describe as the five attributes of the new, undisruptable CEO. According to them, each one of these attributes can help executives lead their organisations through the crisis to emerge even stronger.

  • Ambidextrous leadership (i.e. using both of your hands equally well) is the art of cultivating a healthy tension between operational optimization and future-focused innovation. COVID-19 is challenging every executive to master this tension in real time, with higher stakes and within a time frame that uniquely compresses the distance between “now” and “the future.” Executives are required to make immediate decisions to respond to the crisis while simultaneously anticipating what they’ll need to do to recover. How can you steer your organization through the pressures of the moment while also laying the groundwork for the organization to thrive after the crisis?
  • A beginner’s mindset invites executives to put knowledge and experience aside to gain the freedom of mind to consider new possibilities. In an environment in which everything feels new, it’s much easier—and much more accepted—to adopt a beginner’s mindset. Let this mindset empower your relationships with your colleagues to generate the makings of a powerful vision for what could be your organisation’s next chapter.
  • Disruptive jiu-jitsu challenges executive to harness the power of disruption for their own advantage. It’s becoming increasingly clear that a “return to normal” is unlikely on the other side of the pandemic. Rather, the pages are blank. What innovations, ideas, and shifts will define the “next normal”? What influences will have risen to prominence? How do you want to shape that future? If executives ever needed a moment or a catalyst for change, this is it.
  • End-user ethnography is the skill of being able to champion and model empathy with customers and clients and cultivate an understanding of who they are as humans, not just data points. The pandemic has many people concerned about safety and resources. Under these circumstances, executives should be mindful and acknowledge the human experience. Organisations should not assume that they know how their stakeholders are experiencing the present, or what they want and need to cope. Reach out, ask, witness, and learn.
  • Emotional fortitude entails meta-cognition: the ability to assess and harness the power (and even discomfort) of one’s own thoughts and emotions to make better decisions in the face of uncertainty. Being only human, after all, executives on all levels are experiencing fear and anxiety. Rather than wish this discomfort away or try to strip it out, emotional fortitude means probing this potentially unsettling experience for the insights and information it might offer you. Examine what you already know in your head, in your heart, and in your gut, and ask yourself what else you need to resolve before you can make decisions with the conviction necessary to lead your organization into uncharted territory. This territory will likely shape the legacy you leave.

For me personally, I realise that, consciously or unconsciously, I have used all of these above principles through the last couple of months: I have definitely tried to master the divide between short-term and long-term, I have tried to apply a human approach to all of our business relationships, I have listened to my heart, gut and head, and I sure have based my decisions on the fact that we are not returning to the old normal, but rather the next normal when the pandemic eventually settles.

But, most importantly, I have consistently tried to apply what my colleagues call a beginner’s mindset: the ability to totally strip away those worn-out assumptions, seeing our organisation in a brand new light and allowing myself the freedom of mind to consider new possibilities without the scepticism and cynicism of someone who’s been around for too long.

What is certain is that many executives will use this time to implement changes that were too hard to pass through the organisation before. I hope we all find the courage to rethink our work and the value we create for society.

Of course, we are not beginners, but we might start to think like beginners and dream like beginners – but with the intellect, knowhow and determination of someone who has tried it many times before.


Forfatter spotlight

Martin Søegaard

Martin Søegaard


Martin is the manager of Deloitte's Danish and Nordic consulting business and has more than 25 years of experience in advising Danish and international companies. Martin is at the forefront of developing a consulting practice across the Nordic region that can assist Danish and international companies on their most complex transformation journeys. This includes a focus on management, the establishment of ecosystems as well as on diversity in professionalism and competence.

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