· 3 min read · Features

The 'new normal' environment is no place for leaders who want to play it safe


The current economic difficulties have backed many CEOs into a corner where they are forced to focus almost exclusively on the numbers and nothing else. But is just an easy and convenient excuse for playing it safe?

Sadly, I believe the answer is ‘yes’ in the case of those organisations where there is a culture of safe leadership that perpetuates the status quo and hinders progress and innovation. The primary motives of safe leaders are job security and keeping out of the firing line. These leaders are surprised by the unexpected so their actions become controlled by the environment and they are forever fighting fires. 

Safe leaders also resent the pressure they are under – this is not what they signed up for. But in the ‘new normal’ there is no hiding place for these safe leaders – they will be exposed for what they are.

Real CEOs are very different from safe leaders. These are the leaders whose motives are much more about doing what is right for the organisation and its people than protecting their own interests. They are very good at three critical ways of thinking and behaving:

The ‘new normal’ demands real leaders who focus on spotting and seizing any opportunity that will gain or maintain competitive advantage. This requires them to focus on much more than just the numbers. They must focus instead on the things that really matter, and not the things they feel comfortable or safe focusing on.

They know the things that really matter are those opportunities that will make a difference, not all of which are in the external marketplace. Some may be under the very noses of leaders – so close that they cannot see them. These are the internal change management initiatives that will drive the externally-facing innovation that the ‘new normal’ demands.

By focusing on the things that really matter, and not getting distracted by all the uncontrollables, real leaders ensure their limited capacity focus is put to good use.  They are able to manage the tension arising from their responsibility to ensure the future health of the organisation while at the same time delivering short-term performance.

Nothing can be taken for granted in the ‘new normal’. Real leaders are especially careful not to take their people’s commitment, loyalty, and engagement for granted. They know that no matter how good a job they do as a leader, there will always be some people who are disgruntled and disengaged. They devote time and energy to listening to their people’s views and showing genuine empathy because they know this is more important than ever before.

Real leaders know that high-performing organisations are continually changing – they can never stand still – and this will become an even bigger contributor to an organisation’s success and survival as the ‘new normal’ continues to unfold.  Whether it is driving internal change aimed at sustaining and enhancing employee engagement, or the continual innovation required to maintain and gain competitive advantage in the marketplace, real leaders strive to stay ahead of the game. This process involves planning the what-if scenarios so that they cater for as many surprises as possible. These leaders expect the unexpected and are ready for it.

The ‘new normal’ performance demanded from organisations, teams and individuals is more visible than ever before. Even more demanding is the expectation to achieve more with less. Real leaders must challenge their people to deliver their best and wipe out any complacency. Above all, leaders must challenge everyone to raise their own personal bars. This starts with themselves ­– leaders must be role models for the high standards they expect.

The associated pressure that the ‘new normal’ brings for real leaders requires adaptability and an ability to thrive on, and even love, it. Merely coping with pressure will not deliver the results expected.  Real leaders need to be mentally tough so that they can thrive and create the conditions for their people to also thrive. This mental toughness also involves an ability to maintain self-belief when times get especially tough and inevitable setbacks test leaders’ inner strength.  Loving pressure is much easier when leaders believe in themselves.

In summary, the ‘new normal’ requires CEOs with the courage and desire to be real.  Anything less will result in their own demise and that of the organisations that are in their hands.