The former President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who is now a Professor at Stanford University, has pointed out the paradox that despite now living in the heart of Silicon Valley – the world’s center of IT innovation – if he wishes to have any interaction with any level of government he almost certainly needs to travel to a government office in person.
Being at the forefront of technological innovation has rarely been the cornerstone of running a government and by and large, government leaders have not prioritized servicing their citizens utilizing the wonders of the digital world.
As we live through a real-time, real-world leadership experiment, the global health crisis has forced us to consider whether the leaders we have now are the leaders we still need in the future.
The global pandemic has delivered us the most seismic disruption to our way of working, living and leading in our lifetimes. In a year when many decisions and outcomes have been taken out of our hands by an entirely unpredictable virus, the ability to reimagine and transform how we lead and what we prioritize is important, and it is also one of the few areas within our power to control.
In new research published this month, former world leaders including Professor Ilves, argue it is time to rethink the way our governments function, and the way leaders lead, to better enable us to tackle the challenges our future holds.
In Government Reimagined: Leading Through New Realities, internationally recognized expert on public sector transformation and leadership, Dr Ali Qassim Jawad interviews six former world leaders about their personal experiences of leadership in government. Jawad then builds on these infrequently heard, firsthand experiences to formulate some fairly stark warnings that governments, and the leaders within them, are in many cases no longer fit for purpose.
Jawad argue that governments lack pioneering leadership and often cling to the certainty of the past even though the current and future reality is increasingly uncertain and unpredictable. Governments were originally created, according to Jawad, to steward citizens through destabilizing forces, like a war or an economic depression, but then return them back to the earlier steady state with the goal of society continuing on, largely unchanged.
However, as we know all too well, for some decades the world we live in has not been in any kind of “steady state”. Our modern world is rapidly changing with continuous transformation and reinvention a necessary form of survival for governments and businesses alike.
It is not just the leadership of individuals that needs a rethink but the structures of government. The social contract between citizens and their government leaders has been tested like never before in many countries around the world this year and, in a number of cases, shown to be lacking.
“The social contract is what holds a nation together; it is the glue that binds government, business and citizens to each other”, says Jawad. Yet in many countries, social contracts are fraying.
Jawad argues that governments need to restore trust through greater transparency and ethical leadership. Trust is not about winning votes, but it is “the confidence that citizens have in the ability of their government to ‘deliver’ on their promises”, says Jawad.
And it is not just government leaders that can learn the lessons and who need to change. These lessons to apply to corporate leaders too, regardless of the size of the team they might lead.
According to Jawad, leaders who have shown themselves to cope best during this crisis are those who have learned quickly from failure and adapted accordingly.
Jawad cites the attributes of decisiveness, agility, resilience and humility as being particularly important. These leaders also show they are “more proactive and open-minded to anticipate what might happen in the future”, according to Jawad.
The pandemic has shown that many leaders are ill-prepared to lead in a world where the future is unpredictable or uncertain. According to Jawad, there were some leaders who have shown themselves to be particularly lacking.
“Narcissistic leaders who think they have all the answers or want people to think they are really smart and favour a top down hierarchical style, have not fared well”.
The global pandemic offers a rare opportunity to reimagine the way we build responsive and responsible organizations, both in the government and private sector. This also requires leaders themselves to acknowledge the need for change and to build trustful engagement with those they lead.
As we have witnessed this year, world leaders who have been slow to act or have been unable to adapt to the uncertainties the pandemic has caused have, in many countries, cost lives amongst their citizens.
There is a lesson in that tragedy for every leader.