Illustration: Sameer Pawar
Today we are standing at the crossroads of uncertainty. The Covid-19 pandemic has raged on to become the greatest global crisis; and we are confronted with the climate emergency impacting our planet, our children, the future generation and the entire human race. Propelled by the new landscape, which is dynamic and fluid, leaders have an important role to play today and in the future.
The ‘future of leadership’ would rest in the hands of people who can navigate these tough times with wisdom, lessons from history, decisiveness and most importantly, empathy and compassion. An indomitable will that embraces responsibilities, that firmly believes that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. Caring through the crisis
Like human beings, organisations have also witnessed radical shifts with equations between people, purpose, partnerships, planet and profits for businesses changing in the contours of a world shaped by the pandemic. In extraordinary times such as the present, it is only empathetic leadership that can carry forward teams as well as customers, consumers and communities. With their eyes fixed on the horizon, a leader must be able to endure the storm and anchor the organisation through the depths of the current adversities and volatilities.
As a human being and leader of a company, the first task leaders will have to embrace is to manage themselves amidst ongoing challenges or potential crisis. A leader must be positive and hopeful to overcome a crisis. Attitudes and behaviours are infectious, and hope is contagious. Hence leaders will have to demonstrate the same to their teams. It is critical to give your people the calmness, resoluteness and confidence that you will be able to come out of the crisis, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. If you are concerned only about yourself, your comforts and discomforts, you reflect it very differently with your team.
Selflessness is not something that can be dictated from top down. It must demonstrate itself in behaviour, by the top leadership and this can resonate in the most difficult of times. The values of dignity, respect, compassion and empathy are universal, and it will be the task of every leader to demonstrate those, especially in a crisis. The primary task of a leader is to guard their people during a crisis to ensure they are safe and protected. A true leader will protect and serve his people just like his own family in a crisis and instil a spirit of strength.Promise to our Planet
Another aspect which leaders will have to look at championing going forward is sustainability. The pandemic has been a wake-up call for all our collective conscience. The Covid-19 pandemic shares similarities with the climate crisis: It is systemic, with knock-on effects around the world. Good intentions will no longer be enough; organisations need to join hands and work towards the greater cause. Sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. However, a lot more can be done in some specific areas in the future.
Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing mankind. Addressing this will require a multi-stakeholder approach to collaborate and monitor progress, laying the foundation for a better world. This includes regenerative agriculture practices, a transition to 100 percent renewable electricity, apart from reformulating products to make them more sustainable. There is a need for accelerating actions towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, aiming to create more recyclable or reusable packaging products. Plastic waste is becoming a big menace. There are concerns around the quantity of plastic waste entering the natural environment and damaging ecosystems.Leadership is about having unwavering faith in the people who make up your ecosystem
The need for organisations and businesses will be to stay committed to the planet and foster economic growth that complements the environment. Make thoughtful changes and shifts, stay aware and stay alert. It also takes unprecedented levels of collaboration and innovation to trigger the big, systemic changes required to achieve these ambitious goals. The power to accelerate this change will require a multi-stakeholder approach to collaborate and monitor progress, laying the foundation for a better world. There is an immediate need for all organisations to support, implement and provide solutions and actions to contribute to the conservation of resources, steward them for future generations and meet the climate goals collectively. We need to work collaboratively to protect the health of our habitats, improve soil management, protect the oceans and preserve biodiversity. Working with partners to preserve shared water resources, promoting regenerative agriculture and improving water management practices will be important initiatives.
It has been demonstrated time and again that no one can prosper alone, and business too depends on a thriving society and planet. I would like to share an African proverb that I truly believe in: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go further, go together”. Instead of acting individually, we all need to combine our efforts, with one ultimate end in mind: A sustainable future for the generations to come. Belief in People
Leadership will essentially be about seeing the bigger picture and having unwavering faith in the people who make up your ecosystem. One of the key qualities that a leader must have is the ability to value their people. Whatever a leader achieves, he does so from the shoulder of giants. It is not one hero who makes everything happen, but an entire team, supported by partners and well-wishers; where seemingly ordinary people do extraordinary things.
Another quality that a leader must have is clarity of expectations from his people. Besides, he must be deeply respectful and transparent. The purpose of communication and leadership is to leave a residue, an impact, and a few questions that people ponder over to act upon for the future.
In extraordinary times such as the present, only empathetic leadership can carry forward teams as well as customers
At the core of everything that a leader does is ‘respect’—respect for himself, respect for others, respect for diversity and respect for the future. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a leader should be able to combat unsurmountable challenges and offer that message of hope to people. Feeling the pulse of the organisation and understanding people in the overall chain will be vital aspects of overcoming challenges.
To serve employees who toil hard, to the customers who go beyond the call of duty, to serve consumers who wait patiently in remote corners of the country, to the communities whose livelihoods are intrinsically linked to the business, a leader will have many promises to fulfil. It will be incumbent upon the leader to embrace responsibility and take ownership of failure, while letting teams thrive on success. A leader should act with agility and tenacity by taking bold, swift, judicious actions, and restore confidence in people; embody a spirit of service, tempered with humility, and with quiet fortitude show that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Firms will have to spend more on improving their work culture, to have better-run companies. Faith in Purpose
We recognise that both corporates and human beings cannot stake claim to immortality. There will always be times of stress and challenges from the environment or unprecedented curveballs in the way. Every crisis leads a company back to its values and purpose. This is because these are what help people overcome adversities. Purpose is the guiding spirit of your life. It is not materialistic, but it is what you want to be remembered for as a human being. When imagination is joined to common purpose, it translates into magic. There must be an end motive larger than the person himself.
A leader must live by the purpose of the company, guided with the compass of values that determines his relationship with his employees, partners, stakeholders, customers and consumers, to anchor the ship amidst the storm. A leader must choose hope over fear, purpose over discord and courage over temerity.
Purpose has helped businesses stay consistent through different storms and made them strong enough to take on the travails of the future. They have been helping in the nation’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic by giving every possible support to the communities and authorities who are fighting tirelessly and valiantly each day against the virus, as well as reaching out to vulnerable communities. Strengthening Partnerships
Brands that act in the interest of their employees, stakeholders and society at large will reinforce their expertise, leadership, trust and strengthen the bond they have with consumers going forward. This will help increase penetration and proclivity towards more credible, transparent and trustworthy end products. Long partnerships help strengthen trust and create an everlasting bond among stakeholders.
Companies also have to recalibrate the way they engage with people and this will be a focus area going forward because the whole purpose of organisations is to recalibrate, to empower, to enable decision-making at the appropriate levels. The goals of all partners need to be aligned: To have a positive impact on people’s lives and create maximum value for the consumers they serve. This thought gives meaning to what they do and serves as a lighthouse for aligning their actions.
People are looking for companies they can believe in, trust in, a company that has a social impact, which can change lives positively. The future will demand increased commitment from companies, making sure that business stays committed to the community, the consumer and the planet. When contending with a crisis of magnanimous proportions such as the ongoing pandemic, leaders can easily forget this. In order to pivot, they need to recognise the changes, adapt and grow from them. As they navigate the crisis, leaders need to focus on the six ‘R’ mantras: Relevance, resonance, renewal, recalibration, reconstruction and resurgence.
In the words of Admiral William H McRaven: “Take some risks, step up when the times are toughest, face down the bullets, lift up the downtrodden, and never ever give up. If we do these things, then the next generations and the generations that will follow, will live in a world far better than the one we have today.”
● The writer is chairman and managing director, Nestlé India
(This story appears in the 21 May, 2021 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)