Anti-fragile leadership in response to the crisis

Optimistic, inclusive and kind. The best managers know how to pull together humility, collaboration, culture and they aren’t afraid to talk about their fears. They’re enthusiastic, able to find meaning in the mission. The concept of management must change after covid. We tried to identify the hallmarks of good leadership behaviors, in collaboration with high level managers. We did so at our latest Life Ready Conference titled ‘Managers in shock: will the anti-fragile management style survive?’. At a time when social distancing measures are in place and the economy is suffering, power is concentrated around caring for others rather than using force. Tomorrow’s leadership behaviors require courage and vision for the future.

A new type of power

So what type of power do we need today? The majority of people in business need reassurance (63.4%) and an action plan that involves them (44.4%), as well as being able to feel safe (40%). “Right now, there’s a general feeing that we’re beginning to trust that power is knowledgeable and it’s not something that you need to defend yourself from. There’s a power model that adapts and one that requires you to see opportunity, explains Riccarda Zezza, CEO of Life Based Value. “Today we can see many people adapting, but in the next phase of the transition, that we’ll soon see, people want to be able to see opportunity within their company: not a higher power that makes sure everything goes back to how it was before, but that learns from what has happened and goes beyond it”. The ideal manager shares and listens. In times of crisis, where you’d expect many people to want to tread cautiously, they’re actually looking for a leader who is willing to take risks to move forward. An “anti-fragile” leader.

Anti-fragility is the road to innovation

The concept of anti-fragility, coined by mathematician and philosopher Nassim Taleb, was born out of the idea of trying to find the opposite of fragility. It doesn’t have an opposite, as strength and resilience stay the same when reacting to a sudden turn of events. “When faced with increasing and intense stress levels, those who are anti-fragile take on new skills that they didn’t have before”, underlines Raffaele Guerra, Executive Vice President of Capgemini.

“So that’s why the relationship between anti-fragility and innovation is so interesting: Taleb says that, when faced with an external event, people tend to overreact, or rather have a stronger reaction than the situation needs, creating an ‘emotional supply’. So they tend to accumulate a lot of motivation and good will, which is a great springboard when doing something new”.

It’s what’s happening today as we’re in the middle of the emergency, with around 70-75% of companies moving to working remotely in lockdown. This was made possible through the abandonment of top-down leadership behaviors, which couldn’t work in this situation. “The anti-fragile approach worked, as it’s bottom-up and messy: managers have found new ways for their teams to work remotely, diffusing the idea throughout their companies. Trial and error: you learn by trying new things and making mistakes, even small ones. You need to make a lot of mistakes before you achieve the end result”.

Collaboration fuels innovation

Errors mean we can learn lessons and improve next time around. Collaboration hasn’t affected individual isolated cases within the company, but it’s gone so far beyond that, often touching suppliers and clients too. It’s something that’s typical of companies that class themselves as innovative. “An innovative culture pushes us to manage the company in a non-hierarchical position, caring for and valuing each other and tolerating errors, even encouraging them”, continues Guerra.

34% of CEOs in Italian companies find themselves experiencing this first-hand, playing their part in transforming their companies through the digital revolution. “Having different cultural behaviours and different ways of reasoning are fundamental aspects of tomorrow’s leadership behaviors. We don’t know what the future status quo will be, we just know that it will be different from what we are currently experiencing”.

Digital leaders that focus on generosity and inclusion

Once we’ve come out the other side of the crisis, former managerial models are likely to be superseded by individuals’ actions. Which human characteristics must managers have to allow people to work when uncertainty levels are running sky high? And what will allow them to support others without succumbing to it?

If the initial reaction to the crisis is restructuring the organisation and cutting wages, perhaps a different approach would be to involve employees beyond their daily sacrifices and into the future success of the business. “We need to rediscover the generosity of doing business”. According to Maria Elena Cappello, Member of the Board of Tim, Prysmian, MPS, Saipem, Eni Enrico Mattei Foundation, the coronavirus has accelerated companies’ digital needs by at least 15 years. “We need courageous leaders that are able to quickly bring ideas to life. Companies that have an entrepreneurial and digital spirit need to be able to make a lot of mistakes, but also able to process them quickly enough to understand the mistake and pivot again. We need digital leaders”.

Less hierarchical leadership behaviors, more ideas

This type of approach would allow for managers to feel less alone, for those who are often painted as a single person at the top. It’s through times of crisis that leaders should be transparent and able to include management when looking for new solutions. “It requires younger people to be involved across all levels of the business. Less hierarchy and more ideas flowing around, because the new beginning will be based on a different mechanism to the ones that are already known to us”.

Managers will have to accompany young people that are capable and diverse, including them in a war room scenario as they focus on the plans for overcoming the crisis. “Leaders must be able to anticipate leaving the crisis behind, which is only possible if you have your team close by that you can build a new company culture with. Today’s leadership behaviors focus on doing everything quickly, looking especially on what tomorrow’s business will look like”.

Break down traditional models and invest in people

Managing the Covid-19 emergency has taught us some important anti-fragile lessons. It’s shown us where we’ve made mistakes and where organizational models can be improved. For starters, we can’t plan too far in advance any more.

“Even the best planning models find it difficult to plan for unexpected events. We soon realised that we needed to rely on managers’, supervisors’ and employees’ abilities to challenge plans by generating new ideas”.  Fortunato Costantino is the People Care & Union Relationship Manager at Q8. He’s convinced that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of establishing quality human and professional relationships. During the emergency, the company choose an approach based on direct and transparent communication with its employees. They’ve also launched a new information channel called You’ll never work alone.

Co-creating the future

According to Costantino, top-down management styles can compromise creativity. “We need managers that know how to share objectives and strategies. We need managers that value employees’ contributions and encouraging them to exercise leadership behaviors through healthy debates. It doesn’t mean favouring anarchy or weakening the organisational structure, but rather valuing talent”.

Post lockdown managers will also need to listen, be open to change and value mistakes. “They can’t be experts resting on their technical knowledge. They need a holistic view of the organisation and able to share leadership behaviors”. It’s no longer for the privileged few: it’s everybody’s responsibility.

Trust and sharing information

So, the first step is gaining trust. Christophe Poitrineau knows it well as the Supply Chain Director at Carrefour. At the beginning of the pandemic, the supply chain found themselves under pressure from both consumers and producers. “This crisis isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon”, he admitted.

“We still have a few months where we need to sustain this rhythm. So the first thing to do is regain trust, guaranteeing processes and security measures”. The second step relates to the collective dynamic. For Poitrineau, this means sharing information with the whole team in daily meetings. This provides continuity in process.

Time to stay close to our people

“The most relevant thing for managers is support. It’s important to be on the field, find solutions and not leave people in difficult situations. They can eliminate structural distance between those who work in offices and those who are more operational”. It means it’s key to have shared data, making it easier to have a shared vision and making the right decisions. The situation changes each day and a good leader must be ready to react and anticipate events. “The risk must be absorbed within each day, forgetting about future plans. On the other hand, it’s a chance to return to working on new projects and having a shared future plan that involves the whole group”.

Sharing is a key word in new beginnings. Cristiana Scelza, CEO of Prysmian Russia, has often caught herself saying it when talking about her experiences in the Oil&Gas market in Brasil, the country that was shaken by corruption in the national oil company. In Moscow, companies have a high proportion of female workers but are still dominated by masculine and aggressive behaviour. “The manager isn’t alone. If they believe in diversity and inclusion, they are able to trust their team, which in turn will support them. At the same time, leaders have to be able to filter out their demons. They can’t transmit fear and anxiety, without giving a constructive message”.

“Resilience isn’t enough any more”, said Scelza. We can’t think that we’re going back to the world we lived in before. In times of crisis, we must look to the future. “Crises are a constant around the world, they accelerate everything and make you skip the initial phases. But we have all the tools we need to overcome them. It’s not easy, but there is great opportunity”.

Learning to talk and continuing to learn

It all depends on how you react to different events. Or how you would like to react. We can learn to be anti-fragile too. “It’s not about being adaptable, because we don’t know what we need to adapt to. It’s more about plasticity”, explains Valeria Cantoni, Founder of ArtsFor.

“I contain multitudes” Bob Dylan sings, picking up one of Walt Whitman’s lines. By becoming more aware of our multitudes and richness of resources we can put them into practice. Then we can create space to see what’s at the heart of the matter.

Shared narratives

“Lots of companies continue to tell the same narrative and live off the founder’s story. But the world has changed and the story needs to be updated. The people who make up the company need to tell it. We need to get away from what Luigino Bruni defines as a ‘famine of narrative capital’”, continues Cantoni.

“Managers that make the difference are those that concentrate on the quality of their relationships and language within the company. We need inclusive and authoritative managers that know how to say “I don’t know” and ask for help. We need managers that experiment, favouring a continuous learning environment where it’s okay to make mistakes. Managers that are aware of their interior bias and their own resources. The best managers need to narrate and know how to tell their own stories.”

“The time has come for us to follow our destiny as a community. Not just in terms of responsible decisions, but in terms of survival within the organisation. By learning new things, we can train our experimentation skills. From there we can keep track of them and share what we’ve learned with our colleagues”.

Originally published on Italian publication Parole di Management