British Formula 3 driver Davy Jones once said of Ayrton Senna: "I wonder if his thinking in a race isn't so far advanced that his mind is not relating to the incident that's happening - his mind was already two or three corners ahead. You know when you take a corner your mind goes to the turn in, then to the apex, then to the exit. You're always a step ahead of what you're actually doing. But maybe Senna was always three steps ahead."
Senna was a genius on the racetrack and it's easy to be seduced by the notion that we should conclude from his example that thinking far ahead is the best form of leadership. Right now though, it is not. We need to be focused on the tight corner we are in.
"Despite what one might imagine from a plethora of current media articles, hypothesising about the post-COVID world is not the leadership that business and society needs. Please resist the urge to talk about learnings and behaviours from your last seven weeks of experience that you think might be useful in years to come and shift your attention to a myopic view of the here and now. Don't try to think too far ahead.
It's not that thinking ahead is always a bad thing - of course it's vital at the right time - but it's simply not possible to do it, just a few weeks into this crisis, with any meaningful reliability. The business and social variables that come with coronavirus are just too fluid and rapidly shifting."
— Jim Prior, Global CEO, Superunion
Circumstances are different from day to day, country to country, sector to sector, company to company - no pattern has yet emerged. Nobody knows where this goes next, not the scientists, not the government, none of us. We are early, early, early in the journey, still adjusting to remote working and just starting to implement stage-one restructure plans to adjust to the immediate shock of global lockdown. This period is not a 'new normal', it is highly abnormal and what we've experienced in the past seven weeks won't be the modus operandi for the next decade. There will be few hard and fast lessons anyone can draw yet that will be applicable in a few weeks, let alone a few months. Of course, they will come but they are not here yet.
This may come as something of a jolt to many business leaders who reference points are in the last decade or so of stable, low-growth business conditions. For all the talk (and there was a lot of it) of disruption and transformation there wasn't a whole lot of disruption and transformation actually going on, at least not by the giddy pace of change that these last few weeks have seen. With hindsight, the emphasis was low on action: speaking of change to come, writing decks, at best tweaking the long-established models. And, because nothing much was changing in a hurry, that approach worked just fine. Like an object moving through space, a long-term trajectory is easy to determine when there are no significant forces acting on it. One might even argue that in a well-run business operating in a stable environment, long-term planning is pretty much most of what there is for a good leader to do. But that is clearly not the same environment as we are in now.
The brand purpose gear-shift
Much of the long-term thinking that leaders have engaged in through the last decade has been focused on creating definitions of brand purpose. These have, for the most part, focused on a noble, wide-arc view of a firm's contribution toward the betterment of society. Many such brand purposes have been a valuable addition to the intellectual armoury of the business. But, in my opinion, there has been considerable misunderstanding among many leaders around the role they actually play. First and foremost, a strong brand purpose is not about what kind of business you would like to be, it is about what kind of business you actually are. It is not about persuading millennials/GenZ to want to come work for you, it is about how you interact with them when they are there. It is not about what you would like consumers, shareholders or society to think you believe in, it is about the work you genuinely do for them. In fact, the best brand purpose is one that doesn't need to be written down at all.
In the context of this current crisis, the point about brand purpose is that it is how you act now that will define it, regardless of how it was previously defined. This is a time for action, for proof-points, and for wordless leadership by example.
Congratulations to those companies that have turned over design and manufacturing resources to produce ventilators, masks or PPE; and, to those that have opened up their facilities to the sick or vulnerable; and, to those who have treated their staff and suppliers fairly and with dignity in the face of difficult decisions they have had to make. The leaders of those companies, I speculate, are not busy trying to imagine the post-COVID world, they are channelling all their effort into how they react to what is happening now.
Effective execution of a meaningful brand purpose can have a narrow focus to it too. For technology and telecommunications companies, for example, brand purpose now is almost indisputable: our livelihood and well-being rely on the digital connectedness they provide. There is no need to explore wider avenues of social purpose than that, so long as the service provided is reliable at this time. Focus on the product and the promise takes care of itself.
The time will come again for long-term thinking but, for now, let's concentrate on now.
First published in Forbes.