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After the Pandemic: How Leadership Needs to Change

September 16, 2020

Franz Kühmayer: 6 Leadership implications from the corona crisis

Trend researcher Franz Kühmayer talked about the future of leadership against the backdrop of the all-encompassing coronavirus crisis and encouraged executives to radically rethink their approach to management. In the course of a hybrid-style WU EA Lounge held at the WU Executive Academy in September, the internationally sought-after leadership expert explained why leadership needs to be urgently remodeled after the crisis and what that entails for executives and enterprises in concrete terms.

Pic of Franz Kühmayer, leadership expert
Trend reasearcher Franz Kühmayer takes a look into the future of leadership. Photo © Franz Kühmayer, Zukunftsinstitut

“What we have experienced with the coronavirus crisis so far is a typical example of disruption.” These opening remarks set the tone of the keynote by Franz Kühmayer, trend researcher and expert on the “future of labor” at the Zukunftsinstitut. The event with the title “The Leadership of the Future – for the Future” attracted a large audience: numerous guests from Austria, various European countries, and even the Middle East participated digitally via Zoom, while the MBA participants of the ongoing modules took part on site in the newly created hybrid seminar rooms.

Pic of the hybrid rooms, built during the pandemic
The WU Executive Academy's new hybrid rooms allow participants who cannot be on site to join in.

Post-Coronavirus: What “New Leadership” Entails

In his keynote, Franz Kühmayer presented his take on the ongoing pandemic, analyzing the six most important implications regarding leadership in general and within companies.

1. The Crisis Has Disrupted All Industries

The pandemic has touched virtually every enterprise across all industries: “Many companies have changed their business models and workflows to make room for more digitalization. For others, such as the event and tourism industries, Covid-19 gave rise to a deep-reaching, existential crisis,” Kühmayer says. He particularly emphasized one point: “The pandemic has changed the way we view success.” Before the crisis, success was defined by typical key indicators such as revenues, profits, and EBIT. Now, however, companies pay more attention to innovation and staying in business: “It’s like a push that has forced us to rethink our way of doing things.”

Portrait Franz Kühmayer © Franz Kühmayer, Zukunftsinstitut

Franz Kühmayer

  • Trend researcher and leadership expert

The health crisis occurred very suddenly. However, crises usually announce themselves through foreboding signs, just like a tsunami is preceded by tiny earthquakes.

In today’s world of business and labor, a premonition of looming changes had been palpable for a long time: for years, many young people have wanted a new, more flexible and mobile work style and generally differ remarkably from older generations in their expectations regarding careers and work. “Companies that heeded these signs and already worked remotely before the pandemic are now among the ‘winners’ of this crisis.”

2. A “New Normal” is Not an Option

We are currently discussing a possible second wave that is likely to occur in the upcoming winter season. “Many are hoping that everything will be over soon so we can return to our normal way of life. Maybe, they think, it will have a stronger focus on the digital, which would make it kind of ‘new,’” the future expert says. However: “That is not going to happen. The pandemic will not be the only crisis to hit us in our lifetime, nor will it remain the sole disruption that touches corporate leadership and business.” Climate change is a perfect example of a development that will kick up increasingly urgent questions. “Due to Covid, the topic has been somewhat shoved outside our perception range, but that doesn’t mean that it has gone away.” The expert emphasized that the initial crisis was coming to an end. The phase we were now entering was about applying learnings from the recent past and answering the question whether we want “an improved version” of our old system back, or whether we are willing to create something entirely new.

Symbolic picture for climate change
Next to corona as the current crisis, climate change is probably the biggest crisis that needs a rethink of the system. Photo © CC0 Licence

3. The Future Depends on Our Morale

Forecasts about the economic development do not go far enough in the expert’s opinion. Economists are debating the V model, a steep decline followed by an equally fast recovery, the U model, a slower phase of upturn, and the W model, which entails various ups and downs that our economy will experience in the months to come. “All of these models fall short in the light of our complex reality because they only focus on economic growth,” Franz Kühmayer states. Our outlook on the future is strongly influenced by the attitude and mood prevailing within society regarding the coronavirus crisis, ranging from a collective nervous breakdown to new, innovative solutions and increased resilience. Whether we look at the crisis from an optimist’s point of view – as an opportunity for global cohesion – or pessimistically, as the starting point of society’s downfall, will have an impact on our actions. Franz Kühmayer, for his part, advocated a realistic attitude that carefully considered both the positive and the negative aspects of this development.

4. No More Messiahs

“If the machines become better machines, we humans must become better humans.” The call for unconventional thinkers is stronger than ever. “But we shouldn’t set our hopes on saviors,” Franz Kühmayer warned. Nobody can change the world on their own, not even Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. On the contrary: this yearning for a redeemer is dangerous. “We need to stop projecting positive qualities on certain leaders and putting them on a pedestal.” People like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs have their weaknesses, just like everybody else.

5. A New Approach to Leading Instead of New Leaders

“I don’t believe that we need different executives – we just need to change our approach to leading.” What does that mean? “Leadership is not about maintaining or re-establishing standard procedure. This type of industrial thinking has influenced us for a long time – and it’s time to change that.” What companies need now is a kind of leadership that shatters this standard procedure and conformist behavior “in a productive way, disrupting and innovating enterprises.”

Symbolic picture of new, modern leadership
In the future, a new understanding of leadership and innovative, disruptive leadership will be needed.

All of us have been socialized in the old system, but for true innovation, we need a new way of thinking. In the past, linear thinking was sufficient: there is a product and we want to improve it; we want to achieve more, perform better, get on with it faster. “In the future, this will not be enough. Executives will have to think exponentially with an eye on disruption,” Kühmayer emphasizes. That way, you do not just turn an ordinary fridge into a smart one that posts your orders to the supermarket. Instead, “you think about a future that has no need for fridges at all because Amazon’s drones are delivering your cold beer.”

6. Leaders Need to Communicate the Future

As executives are challenged to develop new ways of thinking, they must also provide new visions of the future – but they cannot do this on their own. Leaders must communicate in a straight-forward way, making use of a variety of channels and addressing different target groups and stakeholders. “It is important to paint and communicate a bright picture of a tomorrow that will be based on close cooperation and social cohesion – together with employees and, ideally, also with customers, suppliers, and business partners,” Kühmayer said. Companies need to ask themselves: “How can we make sure to be productive together in three, five, or ten years’ time?”

Instead of looking to charismatic leaders who are hyped as heroes by the media, executives have to conduct a targeted search for allies: “If you choose the path of doing nothing while you are waiting for a savior, you strip yourself of the power to act on your own behalf.” Hoping for somebody to come and single-handedly save the world is not just fruitless but also unhealthy.

There is no doubt about one thing: “Leaders are faced with ever higher expectations – which, for some part, is justified,” Franz Kühmayer concludes.

If you want to know what leadership of the future looks like and how you can learn it, please click here.

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