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On the Edge: Walking the Line between Adversity and Opportunity

“I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough.” — Marissa Mayer (former CEO of Yahoo)


For quite a while now we’ve been aware that the world is changing. We’ve all been blitzed with encouragements to become agile in the face of a VUCA world and been puzzling for months about 4IR and what it means in the context of your role, your company. We’ve been aware that leadership needs to change, and we need to change, and it all seemed important…but somewhat distant. A bit like a rumble of thunder over in the distance when the sun is still shining brightly in the blue sky.

And then all of a sudden, we found ourselves unexpectedly swept up in the path of a racing tornado called Coronavirus, and all our plans and strategies for 2020 became meaningless. No time for change management, or even to ask questions and no space for resistance. Just plain and simple widespread overnight global disruption.

And the fact is, ‘normality will never return, and the world that emerges will be different. It will take a good two years for economies to recover and in that time we have to figure out an unusual way forward using fresh thinking, with little to guide us.

Adversity and opportunity: different sides of the same coin

The greatest opportunities seem to emerge from times of adversity, and everyone is likely to have a personal example to relate. Life is both a great teacher and a great enabler. Adversity on this scale understandably creates anxiety and fear for many (some tips for dealing with this here), and it’s important to move through these feelings. Yet on the other side lies a future with new possibilities and opportunities that could not otherwise have surfaced.

Steve Jobs memorably said of Apple, “Everyone here has the sense that right now is one of those moments when we are influencing the future.” That opportunity exists for us now. We are being asked to step up to think differently, respond differently and lead differently. You may not have asked for the crisis, but through it you can become part of the creation a better, more connected and more congruent world.

Working together to achieve the unthought-of

Today’s world is too complex for any heroic leader to produce a miracle. Systemic leadership, on the other hand, allows for collective effort to deliver significantly more than the sum of the parts. In a rapid shift that can only be described as astounding, today we are seeing leaders, companies, countries putting aside profits as they work innovatively together, faster than ever before, for the greater good of humanity.

The World Economic Forum carries some of these stories here – and my guess is that as little as six months ago, none of them would have factored this into their strategic planning! Closer to home, just a glance on any social media platform shows the extent to which South Africans have stepped up to abundantly support each other with their skills and talents and offers to help.

Power to Create Change

The ability to lead out from a position of empowerment is available to all of us. All we need to ask is “how can I/we respond to this situation in ways that deliver value and that will really make a difference?” As a first step, that requires us to ask, “how do I/we need to think differently?”

In the midst of indefinite (likely permanent) uncertainty, one thing will always remain certain, and that is the power we have, as individuals and as teams, to control how we respond to whatever is going on out there. As we change our thinking, we become more resourceful, and delightfully unexpected ideas, possibilities, and solutions emerge. We can’t do much about situations like coronavirus, but we can transform ourselves to use these challenges as a conduit for achieving extraordinary outcomes.

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