Transformation in the time of coronavirus

A leadership challenge

by Hayat Chedid

These are challenging times. Data suggests that the Corona crisis will be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, which in itself was a steppingstone into World War II. The current crisis is one of these defining moments, there will be a clear “before and after” Covid-19 pandemic. The question is how leaders want to live up to this historical moment. We need to reinvent much of what we do, and not only how we do it. Once we manage to shift our energy, minds and hearts away from denial and let go of old, unsustainable systems/behaviors that no longer serve us, we will move to the space of creativity that the new needs.

Letting go of the world we knew is not an easy feat, even though it is not a trade-off in the hearts and minds of many. In other words, many do not want to go back to the old, although the path forward is uncertain. Whilst creating and materializing the new needs courage, holding to the uncomfortable comfort zone uses much strength and energy, both of which are very much needed for the transformation ahead. Navigating the way through transforming oneself is painful and tedious yet necessary, as it is only through the death of the old that the new can emerge. It is particularly challenging now, as we are going through the current crisis collectively and we will need a critical mass to create. On the other hand, the collective experience might give us the courage not only to reflect, rethink and create but also truly connect. None of us needs to go through this alone.

Leaders’ response to the crisis will to a great extent determine what is on the other side. The choices we make in this period, or the ones we abstain from making, will define what some call the new economy or new era. Responses will vary and so are the trajectories and hence the outcomes.

Depending of the capability of leaders and their teams to embark on the painful process of redefining the self through des-identification, there might be three different responses to the current crisis.

Response 1

Fear and loss of control: The clinging effect

Fear is likely to lead to defensive strategies. In their desperate attempt to align to what they cannot comprehend, leaders can become reactive or passive, the defector handing over control of their enterprise to their environment, like letting go of the rudder in a big storm.

The permanent doubt and apprehension of the leader to take a decision would keep them in a neither-nor status. Facing the current crisis, leaders who avoid exploring the solution that would end the old state are inhibiting their capability to explore truly innovative opportunities.

They are staying in the comfort zone, even when uncomfortable. This stems from the fear of the unknown, the same fear that is triggered by not understanding.

Running a business, there is no greater fear than the one of the “clean sheet”. The “clean sheet”, the virgin drawing board approach invites us to let go of frameworks, old patterns and past experiences to create, even shortly, from a boundaryless space. This is very unconformable and even disorienting. Unfortunately, pre-defined “boxes” and the experience of previous crises might not help in this unprecedented world state. Hence, going to a virgin drawing board might be necessary.

Response 2

Search for the perfect response and the roundabout effect

Leaders know well that searching for the perfect strategy is an illusion. However, when facing turbulent times, the need for something to hold onto leads many leaders to take solace in having a detailed proven plan. As James Blunt sings: “My life is brilliant. My love is pure. I saw an angel. Of that I am sure. She smiled at me on the subway. She was with another man. But I won’t lose no sleep on that’ cause I’ve got a plan.”

Unfortunately, the plan becomes the new reality and it creates a roundabout effect; falling back on old recipes, consequently repeating the firm’s historical pattern and/or following trends of the time resulting in repetitive patterns. With the corona crisis, this attitude would likely lead to disastrous outcomes and not only to the classic agitation or statism. We can’t pretend to know, now.

“The old needs to die for the new to emerge.”

Vanitas – Still Life with Bouquet and Skull, Adriaen van Utrecht, 1599–1653

Response 3

Creation/Destruction: The Art of the impossible

The old needs to die for the new to emerge; the new needs creativity and freedom from the old patterns to emerge. The mythical goddess Kali is the symbolic embodiment of destruction/creation. Like Kali, we should embrace both dimensions with indifference, energy and excitement. Destruction and Creation are equally needed to open new skies.

When the transformation trigger is excitement and constructive dreams, leaders have the ability to recognize opportunities out there. The “excitement” is the state in which transformation is possible. This state is unfortunately fragile and can only lead to strategic innovation and creative change under the following conditions:

  • No more fear of loss of control or power, no more false hope and illusions;
  • Re-questioning the business existence and its purpose critically and fundamentally;
  • Leaders’ adherence to the necessity of diversity of thought and antagonistic views;
  • Having processes that allow the clean sheet approach;
  • Preserving the individual creativity through identification by disidentification rather than seeking sameness, belonging and hastened consensus;
  • In sizeable firms, minimizing middle management fear of loss of power.
  • Middle managers are key to effectively implementing change.
  • Allowing unconventional approaches to strategy. Strategy is a desire, a vision; it is an art rather than a science.

I believe that this journey needs us to choose for the Art of the impossible. What is holding us back is our individual and collective patterns. The trajectory is the one of “identity death” at an unprecedented scale. Leaders are on the front lines. They need help getting there, so that they can lead the way.

I will share my thoughts on what I think the transformation steps might be in the following article. For now, I welcome your thoughts and creative discussions.

Responses to the Corona crisis

Fear and loss of control

The clinging effect

Defensive strategies, Passive strategies Administrative Strategies, Positions

Search for the perfect response

The roundabout effect

Historical pattern repetition; Rationalization and selling a “well oiled machine”


The Art of the Impossible

Rupture, Transformational, Emergent, Entrepreneurial, Innovative strategies