Lasting leadership: six secrets to success
Economist, entrepreneur and former White House adviser Pippa Malmgren now advises the UK government, among others. She talks to Lysanne Currie about the leadership skills that will be needed for a post-Covid world
Pippa Malmgren’s The Infinite Leader: Balancing the Demands of Modern Business Leadership couldn’t have rolled off the printing presses at a more opportune moment – published in an era of global pandemics, economic meltdowns and some seriously suboptimal leaders. So, why have there been such spectacular failures in some places? And why have female-led governments seemingly responded better to the pandemic?
Following 2018’s The Leadership Lab, co-authors Malmgren and entrepreneur Chris Lewis set out to address these issues in The Infinite Leader, focusing on soft-skill solutions such as collaboration, empathy and “zero-state thinking”, which produces long-term success through a balance of analytical logic and intuition.
“Balancing is the key to leadership success,” says Malmgren. “It helps us pivot back and forth between many different ways of thinking and different skillsets in order to land correctly on any given issue.” The authors also scotch some damaging myths along the way (confidence does not equal competence… who knew?) but remain broadly optimistic. “We’re far more empowered today as individuals than ever before,” she insists. Here she offers six pointers for more resilient and longer-lasting leadership.
1. Avoid cognitive bias
Humans still believe the tallest person in the room should be the leader and, historically, they have been: CEOs tend to be significantly taller than the rest of the population. Also, we often believe the person with the lowest voice has the greatest authority. One reason why women often do less well in leadership stakes is because their voice puts them in a different category, and you will find a lot of successful female leaders will start lowering their voices.
It works, but do we want it to work? Or do we want to give freedom to people to be who they are and recognise their gifts without needing to present them in a way other people recognise as being qualified? Choose to make conscious decisions and to listen differently – to not have cognitive bias. Maybe somebody with a higher voice will be a better leader, have a better answer or be a more valuable team member.
2. Rethink, reframe and reimagine
The pandemic gave us the opportunity to dive deeper when writing The Infinite Leader. Leaders need not just a strong vision for the future, but also the agility to look at businesses with fresh eyes to accommodate the shifting sands. Some businesses will be born purely because of the crisis. For example, family-owned restaurants run by identifiable personalities have sprung back quickly, as neighbourhoods want to support them. There are no such emotional allegiances to a lot of the big global food chains, so they’ve really suffered.
I spoke to the CEO of a B2B pizza company who, when Covid-19 hit, had to completely reimagine, reshape and reform their whole business model within 10 days as their customers – pubs – had shut down. They began delivering to homes and they’re now taking on Domino’s – one of the best-financed brand names in the world. Amazingly, not only did they succeed, they started beating Domino’s because they taste better and have better-quality ingredients. They sell their pizza as a kit and it’s fun – families at home get to make something together and compose their own recipes. They made a decision to re-audience their business, which took brave and extraordinary leadership.
3. Leadership is love
People say love has nothing to do with business, but it does. There’s a cowboy museum in the US that nobody was allowed into because of Covid. A security guard there said, “If nobody else is going to write the social media, then I will, because I love this museum and I don’t want it to fail.” He’d never used Twitter in his life, but he wrote these beautiful moving posts about what John Wayne wore, for instance, and in such enthusiastic and passionate ways that he soon had tens of thousands of followers. It was just pure love – and that’s a kind of magic that allows you to transform and perform through these high-pressure circumstances. As a leader, do you love your staff enough to bring out things they didn’t know they had in them?
4. Age diversity is key
When we talk about who we want on a team, we often focus on youth at the expense of older generations. But some younger people are struggling at the moment, worried they’ll never overcome these times, whereas older people have been through severe crises: their parents will have lived through World War Two and they will themselves have experienced multiple financial crises. They know fundamentally that dark times pass and they appreciate that they will get through them. As a result, they often end up bringing open-minded enthusiasm to organisations.
5. Everyone is a leader
Every day we’re called upon to make leadership decisions, and we always think of it as something someone else does. But have you thought about who’s demonstrating true leadership in your business? It might be a single parent running a household and a business at the same time. Ask yourself: who really knows what is going on in this place? Often, it’ll be someone in admin or a PA – somebody who knows the gossip. Are you tapping their knowledge? Are you assuming that just because they don’t have the right title, they can’t have the right input? Cast your net wider to get a true handle on your company.
6. Make time to ‘be’
It is a shocking fact that many CEOs are so busy they can’t feel the pain in their right arm that indicates a coming heart attack. If that can’t be felt, how is a leader going to feel the organisation? Make time to look inside yourself and feel your interior. Much of the job of leaders is not to do, but to “be”. Chris and I always say every leader has a to-do list, but almost none has a to-be list. Now is the time to start writing one.