Chemistry Board

Has there ever been a more dramatic year with such a significant power shift as 2011?

The Arab spring unsettled much of the established order across the Middle East and brought surprising changes. The Tunisian government collapsed after 23 years of solid control; civil war swept through Libya resulting in the death of Colonel Gaddafi after 41 years of leadership; Bahrain declared a national state of emergency; the former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo was arrested in his home bringing an end to the Ivorian civil war. In Europe, Greek Prime Minister, Giorgios Papandreou, encountered extensive scrutiny due to the Euro bailout; Ireland’s former Brian Cowen resigned as Taoiseach after difficulties connected with the proposed Euro rescue deal; and now a potential political uprising is occurring in Russia, following the biggest opposition rallies for many years in Moscow and with other cities now expected to follow suit.

The full consequences of these various events are very much unknown, but what is more fascinating is that many of these outcomes appeared inconceivable at the start of the year. The business sector has been equally turbulent with an unsteady finance sector, difficulties mounting in the automotive industry and a housing sector unable to fully bounce back. With this backdrop in mind, what is the catalyst that brings a tipping point to a breakdown in leadership? What factors combine to turn an untouchable ruler into a nervous wreck? Each of these scenarios has a unique set of attached circumstances, but in each case there are three universal characteristics of weak leadership that any leader would be advised to learn from:

  • Stagnation
  • Corruption
  • Failure to listen

Nothing builds up resentment like the feeling of going backwards or drifting. This is the likely picture across much of Europe at the moment with the standard of living in decline and disposable income per household dropping. In the midst of difficulties, a leader would be wise to ensure there is a strategy to confront key issues. Complications will always find their way into any organisation, but if troubles are resolved effectively, this can build long term confidence and trust. The old familiar phrase, “it is better to try something, than do nothing”, rings so true, as failure to attempt to provide a dynamic platform in the face of challenges, will stir the raging sound of disgruntled voices.

Many leaders, both past and present, have used fear as an instrument to drive subordinates, to elevate their own positions and to obtain the results they desire. Indeed some might argue that the angry headmaster approach is the best way to whip a staff team into shape. But even the most feared leader is compromised by corruption scandals, as it hints at a much greater weakness. The year of 2011 has shown us that the tide will turn even against some of the most untouchable autocrats and that even though power can be abused it can also be restored.

It is impossible to predict or even engineer the tipping point that is around the corner. Of course there are indicators but for example, no-one could foresee the magnitude of the natural disaster inflicted upon Japan and the multiplier effect that would cause on the nuclear power industry. However, in order to be best prepared during this harsh socio-economic climate, it would be advisable to listen and to be humble enough to give time to a wide range of opinions. Sometimes the right direction to lead a team forward can be discovered by the most unusual means and in the most unexpected places.

We have witnessed an extraordinary array of challenges this year, displayed through economic turbulence, social disorder, political transformations and epic natural disasters. This next year will inevitably bring further global uncertainty upon every industry, culture and function. Good leadership cannot shield the full impact of these issues, but if the lessons of 2011 are learnt, we might see a positive shift in the character of leadership. The tipping point will offer no warnings, but be mindful not to have your back turned.