Leadership Truths that Transcend the Pandemic

Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter shares lessons on leadership she has learned throughout the years.

One of my favorite aphorisms is: Change is a threat when done TO me; it is an opportunity when done BY me.

No wonder this Covid-19 pandemic year has been so disturbing. It has tilted heavily toward change done TO us. People feel threatened by numerous changes imposed on them in every part of life, not to mention their anxiety about the disease itself. There’s nothing worse than standing by, wallowing in uncertainty, and waiting to be told what to do. The happiest people, by contrast, find ways to be useful by contributing to solutions, especially ones that empowered others to take charge of their circumstances. The challenge is how to maintain a sense of agency and efficacy by finding or creating the opportunities ahead. How to avoid helplessness and passivity and instead keep moving toward goals, even if the timeline is pushed out.

Points of crisis like this show the need for leadership—our own inner leader and the national and global leaders we count on. Through the years, and through many crises, I’ve distilled numerous lessons about leadership for dicey situations. Here are some of them.

 Leadership and change go hand-in-hand. When things are going smoothly, it’s possible to ride the momentum regardless of who’s in the driver’s seat. Leaders are most necessary when there’s a need for change and most visible when they create change. Entrepreneurs, of course, are always in the change business. They look for opportunities in the gaps, in what’s not working, and then convince people to try something new.

Change is a journey and not a destination. I’ve worked with founders and CEOs through multiple stages of disruption and many efforts to “get it right.” They never get it permanently right. Organizations, industries, communities, or nations are always evolving, adapting, reacting, or boldly shaping change, and then reacting to competitors’ and stakeholders’ reactions to their changes. 

For this reason, some businesses come and go like shooting stars. But I have leaned toward the ones that can sustain themselves over time, turning around when they need to, shifting shape when they have to, but always maintaining their sense of mission and purpose. I’ve accumulated multiple cases on IBM, Verizon, Publicis Groupe, Procter & Gamble, and Sesame Workshop, among others, at many choice points.

You can’t rest on laurels, but you can’t wallow in setbacks either. You’re only as good as your last performance but you can be better in the next performance. If you can’t do it right the first time, do it better the second time. Have your next idea waiting in the wings. I’ve translated this lesson to advise MBAs that the second job after the degree is often more important than the first. The first job gets you into the general territory—the city (geography still matters) or the industry. Find the connections, and work on the next idea.

 I wish someone had given me that advice when I got out of school. As a “pioneer”—often the first or only women, and the second tenured female faculty member at HBS—I didn’t have guides. I had to learn by trying. I learned that looking back isn’t as rewarding as looking ahead. Nostalgia is the enemy of change.

Change is a campaign and not a decision. Leaders are always selling. They must also work to win hearts and minds, even after the vote is taken or the acquisition approved. Leaders can’t declare victory at the stroke of a pen or the excitement of the announcement. Bold strokes must be accompanied by long marches that convince people that change will be good for them, as they are the ones who eventually change the culture. 

Selling starts early, well before decision dates. Innovative leaders must sell the idea in the first place to assemble backers and supporters. It’s best to anticipate resistance and be well-fortified by supporters. People who are opposed have long memories. Ghosts of the past, past resentments, are always lurking in a corner somewhere and ready to surface when you ask those people to do something new. That’s one reason for “Kanter’s Law:” Everything can look like a failure in the middle. If the idea is right, persist, pivot, and keep persuading.

 Relationships and relationship skills matter the most. The great CEOs and public sector leaders I’ve known show great empathy—the ability to figure out what’s going on with other people. This doesn’t mean they lack blind spots. But they believe in the inherent goodness and good will of those around them, or surround themselves with people of good will. That was President Nelson Mandela’s success secret in South Africa—reaching out to former enemies rather than seeking revenge and saying “they’ll come right in the end.” A global CEO consistently won deals and partners over competitors by showing a personal touch, knowing enough about the other to show support and listening to his or her deeper goals. But leaders can be too trusting, as I saw when one alliance fell apart because one of the CEOs turned out to be sneaky and deceptive. That’s where the ability to read other people can be an asset.

Lift others up. It’s okay to be personally ambitious, but you need allies to get anything significant done. So you must be ambitious for them too. All of us who aspire to lead are in the massage business—ego massage, or making people feel you will help them get what they want and need. Of course, this must be authentic, or it falls flat.

Leadership is not about the leader. It’s not about what the leader does but what he or she enables others to do. Leadership helps other people find their voices, contribute their ideas, and make meaningful contributions—even when life throws a pandemic at them. Leaders can transform people from passive victims to active, energized participants in the journey of change.

© copyright 2021 by Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor at Harvard Business School, has founded and directed the Harvard-wide Advanced Leadership Initiative, and is the author or co-author of 20 books, including her most recent, Think Outside the Building: How Advanced Leaders Can Change the World One Smart Innovation at a Time. On Twitter @RosabethKanter