18 May 2020

Leadership, Character and Morality in Times of Crisis

Ditchley’s virtual programme is designed in response to the pandemic and the dramatic effects it is having on our lives. The programme considers the impact on our personal lives, our communities and changes in wider society. We start with a focus on individuals, communities, and, in this session, on the impact of the pandemic on moral leadership.  

The focus of May is on communities and the economy as an aggregation of communities connected by systems. In time this will progress to a broader focus on the systems underpinning societies, from ones we can determine such as the economic, to systems we depend upon – the climate. At the core of this programme is an ambition to understand the challenge and questions the pandemic raises for democratic societies. What the pandemic is surfacing as to what people care about and why, and how can democracies respond? 

In this session, Ditchley assembled a Transatlantic group cutting across generations and different sectors to discuss the changing nature of value and values in society, and the consequences for leadership and moral choices. Throughout the discussion there was an underlying emphasis on the virtue of intellectual humility – we are in uncharted territory. There was a search for the right language to articulate which public values we should aspire to – solidarity, community and family as three examples – but a sense that the language should be tested early and often.  

We began with presentations on important elements of moral leadership. Participants noted that moral leadership encourages rather than avoids dissent: we must preserve the freedom to ask hard questions as circumstances evolve. The challenge was how to allow for disagreement without solidarity shattering. Leaders needed to be open, to be able to change course, to choose advisors carefully, to take unpopular decisions and to communicate effectively. The nature of leadership was evolving quickly. In response to the pandemic, participants had noticed acts of ‘permissionless leadership’ – people stepping up and taking initiatives on their own account and accepting risk – and also ‘distributed-leadership’ in highly motivated self-organised teams without a visible single leader. These were described as life changing experiences by those involved. 

There was consensus throughout the discussion that we are in a ‘reset’ moment in which renewal of mission or purpose is paramount. We should take the opportunity to set a deliberate course and check regularly that we remain on the right track. Participants agreed that purpose-driven leadership is crucial for leaders across all sectors. Examples were given of enterprises that have made a clear effort to put common purpose above individual ego over the last few weeks and that have moved nimbly as a result, making the most of technological collaboration. This has helped to unleash human potential more quickly and effectively than previously thought possible. It was generally agreed that we will encounter equivalent challenges in the future – whether through new strains of the virus, climate change or otherwise.  Purpose-driven leadership is a long-term necessity. 

Human values such as respect, care and solidarity emerged as key parts of purpose: we are seeing a re-emergence of collective, public values, highlighting our duties and our dependencies on others. We are learning that over past decades, value has been mostly reduced to price and that a reappraisal of value is now necessary.  

We touched on some difficult moral questions such as, what is the value of a human life? A division emerged, perhaps mirrored more widely in society, between participants who saw talk of trade-offs between health and the economy as a false dichotomy and those who felt that this dichotomy and trade-off is real and inevitable, with leaders reluctant to face its reality.  Those who viewed the dichotomy as false tended also to feel most keenly the responsibility of protecting the health of employees and others when taking decisions and the least tolerance for risk. All, though, could see the urgency in finding the right collective language to promote cohesion in society, with a sense that this is fracturing.    

There was recognition throughout the discussion that leaders will tire and that we need to prepare ourselves for this. That said, human values were also described as muscles that strengthen through ongoing use. Some of these muscles may have atrophied over recent decades, but we are now beginning to recognise their importance. For example, generosity leads to more generosity, just as love and care for others encourages more love and care. The affirmation and reaffirmation of these values through communities generates its own energy that may sustain us through the trials ahead. We are seeing a strong display of community-based, volunteer leadership, where leaders have to work with a diverse range of people on their own terms, rather than selecting exactly with whom they want to work. A benefit of this crisis may be a more caring and open leadership culture.  

Participants felt that we need leaders capable of ‘breaking out of tribes’ – able to craft a mission and attract wide range support. Equally we may need to break out of traditional categorisations of people based on sectors. We explored how we might best understand which values might most bind people together across different groups. How can we best recognise individuals holistically, based on their wide range of abilities, rather than criticise them for their private shortcomings? What might corporate leaders offer beyond their sectors and to the communities around them? 

Throughout the discussions, there was a recurrent theme of the importance of trust in others to do the right thing and to let them do it. We are realising now just how little we may have trusted others prior to the crisis and how rigid were many of our hierarchies. We have largely relied on command and control structures and in some instances put bureaucracies in place to stop people doing the right thing. Good leaders create space for people to self-organise in response to challenges.  

Solidarity, community and family were resonant themes, but this was balanced by emphasis on freedom to dissent. Response to the crisis as a leader demands critical thinking and interrogation of self, and an ability to internalise complexity. At some point leaders cannot rely only on external inputs (‘what science shows’), but rather need to work out their own vision and strategy and then be able to communicate it in clear terms. Many participants underlined the power of individuals as well as of collectives to set long-term visions with substance and structure.  

Those who encourage challenge from within and without, make space for teams to show initiative and who re-assess the question ‘What do we value?’ may emerge strengthened over the long-term.  Leadership is on trial and on show in these difficult circumstances.  We have to nurture and sustain the new sense of community that is emerging from the crisis, aiming to keep our richer appreciation of who and what matters.  

Participants: James Arroyo, Director of the Ditchley Foundation; Edward Brooks, Executive Director, Oxford Character Project; Paul Clarke, Chief Technology Officer, Ocado; Emerson Csorba, Ditchley's Chief of Staff; Yoko Dochi, Head of Investor Relations, Softbank Group; Dick Elsy, Chief Executive, High Value Manufacturing Catapult; Marjorie Neasham Glasgow, CEO, Ridge Clean Energy; Jamie Hawkey, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey; Tara Lemméy, CEO, LENS; Connor Lyons, Manager in the Strategy & Corporate Finance group, Power Corporation of Canada; Professor Margaret MacMillan, Professor of History, University of Toronto, Emeritus Professor of International History, Oxford University; Don McCutchan, CEO, Northstar Trade Finance; Jamie P. Merisotis, President and CEO, Lumina Foundation; Jami Miscik, CEO, Kissinger Associates Inc; Glen Moreno, Director, and former CEO, Fidelity International Ltd; William Shao,  Student in Classics, International Relations and Modern Languages, Stanford University; John Stackhouse, Senior Vice President, Office of the CEO, RBC; Nora Topor-Kalinskij, Regulatory and Political Analyst, EDF Energy; Gal Treger, Manager, Schmidt Futures; Catherine Vollgraff Heidweiller, Head of Quantum Computing Partnerships UK, Google, London; Edward Whiting, Director of Strategy, Wellcome Trust; Dr Catherine Wills, Trustee.

The text is a summary of the discussion. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.