In the mid-1960s, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was designing an unmanned moon rover that would carry out survey work ahead of the first moon landing.
The project was led by scientist Phyllis Buwalda, who had been homeschooled on a ranch in Colorado and had a tough, practical intellect. Her team came to her with a problem. We’ve got absolutely no idea what the surface of the moon is like, they said. Is it going to be sandy? Will there be sharp stones? Will it be hilly? We can’t design a vehicle until we know what it’s like.
Phyllis had a brilliant answer. She said: It’s like the desert in the Southwest. Off you go. People asked her afterwards – how did you know? She said: I didn’t. But if I didn’t take away the uncertainty, my team couldn’t do anything, and there wouldn’t be a moon rover. So I just picked out something that I thought was the best bet. And I ruled out things which my team simply couldn’t build for anyway.
For me, this is a really good example of great leadership. Especially now. Because in the era of Covid – and Brexit – it’s vital that business leaders remove some of the uncertainty about things – even if they don’t know the answers themselves.
So if you don’t know what Brexit is going to look like, make a calculated guess.
This lets the rest of the team get on and make the decisions needed to keep the business moving forward. Nailing your colours to the mast and getting cracking is a better strategy than doing nothing. It also helps to create a sense of wellbeing, reducing stress and potential absenteeism.
Leaders need to be particularly focused right now on the challenges their workforce are facing. People are rightly nervous and uncertain. They’re dealing with a whole bunch of anxieties around work, health, looking after loved ones and getting the kids to school.
In this context, leadership style can be as important as the decisions you make.
Traditionally, we tend to associate leadership style with a kind of lone hero figure. A military or political leader like Winston Churchill. Or Steve Jobs – a creative genius type who has insights and abilities that others don’t have.
A lot depends on your sector and context. Churchill’s combative style may have been right to lead the nation to victory in World War II. But it might not work, for example, in a hospice or care home.
Leadership is also a team effort – rather than a purely solo enterprise – for many businesses and sectors. A big organisation like the health service, for example, has multiple leaders.
Challenge and change
For large and small businesses alike, the significant change created by Covid-19 is the biggest challenge they face. Businesses must gear up their leadership and management teams to make these changes possible.
This might include looking for leadership in different parts of your organisation. For example, you may be planning to transition to a more digital environment to reduce your costs. Where will that digital leadership come from? Who in the organisation has got the ability to turn paper processes into digital processes? Or to work out how to retain customer loyalty in a digital world?
One of the greatest leadership qualities is empowering others to lead.
As we all enter uncharted waters – our metaphorical surface of the moon – we might find the real leaders we need are in middle management or customer service – and not in the boardroom.