The last few years have tested us personally and professionally on many levels. It’s taken the meaning of VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) to a whole new level, asking us all to deconstruct reality and push the boundaries of possibilities in how we live and lead. At the end of 2021, we pondered what 2022 might bring and whether the challenges would continue. Many organisations were stretched and challenged in 2022 but in different ways than in the previous two years. Wo
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Workforce management and keeping up with rapid growth became the two core challenges, and their intersection made things especially difficult. Leaders need to learn how to leverage and scale growth with a rapidly changing workforce that is making demands (not requests) in the middle of a talent shortage. Not to mention managing to be inclusive and create a sense of wellbeing and belonging within a culture in which everyone thrives. Exhausting just thinking about it, isn’t it? The demands on leaders today are multiplying and, combined with market changes, require us all to rethink our leadership toolkit so we’ll be equipped to lead into the future. So, what is the number one skill leaders need to lead brands effectively in a future that is volatile, uncertain, complex and often ambiguous? Leaders must move beyond resilience The number one skill leaders need is not resilience but antifragility. Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. He describes it as: Things [that] benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better [as a result of them]. An antifragile leader builds antifragile cultures and teams, antifragile cultures and teams build antifragile brands, and antifragile brands change the way we work and live through innovation – and leave a legacy. So, what is the difference between fragility, resilience, and antifragility? Using Covid-19 as an example, a fragile leader might have taken an approach of general risk mitigation and management during the pandemic, by cutting costs and decreasing the workforce. They might have even given in to the pressure and closed up shop. A resilient leader might have pushed back against the pressure and maintained the business by working to serve current clients and keep teams employed. An antifragile leader might have done the above, but might also have found a commercial opportunity in the crisis. They might have welcomed the pressure and reconstructed the entire business model; for example, they might have invested in e-commerce and expanded internationally, using the crisis as an opportunity to become stronger. How can you cultivate antifragility to become a leader who creates antifragile brands? Lean into the uncomfortable, consistently In a sociopolitical world and future, inclusion is the best work to do to build antifragility. Working with purpose-driven brands, I often observe how leaders react to conversations and decisions around inclusion compared with those around sustainability. There is greater sensitivity around inclusion and the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing in that area holds leaders and executive teams captive. This keeps them from making progress. Leaders too often mask their fear by citing ‘risk’, ‘misalignment with brand identity’, or being ‘too busy with business as usual’. When it comes to inclusion, get the intent focused on progress, not perfection. Understand that discomfort is an indicator of progress and growth. Over time, you will sensitise yourself to inclusion issues and become comfortable managing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. This ability is the lead indicator that your antifragile muscle is getting stronger. There is no better work to do to build antifragility than inclusion. It’s the most challenging, complex, and sensitive work out there for leaders today, and consumer expectations for brands working in this space only continue to grow. Build antifragility through the work of inclusion and it will translate to growth and development for all your leadership responsibilities. Reframe cancel culture As an inclusion practitioner, I often find that the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing is, at its root, the fear of being ‘cancelled’. But cancel culture can be viewed instead as accountability culture or what I like to call ‘brand integrity culture’. As leaders, we want to be held accountable to be the best version of ourselves so we can lead a brand that reflects integrity. The patterns of history have shown us that tension and chaos are, perhaps unfortunately, necessary for us to evolve. Pause and reflect to respond, not react In moments of crisis, it’s normal to react. When pressure and stress mount, so too does the impulse to react; it’s our place of comfort, the way our brains are programmed, and how many of us (including myself) operate. As leaders, however, we need to be shrewd enough to act strategically instead of reacting. The first action in moments when we are faced with an uncomfortable choice and the opportunity for growth should be to hit that pause button. It is only when paused that we can effectively reflect on how to respond strategically. As the world grows increasingly complex, what will determine a brand’s success is its leader’s ability to reframe and reset challenges as opportunities to take moments to grow and get stronger, not shrink or give in to pressure. It’s about the ability to be not just resilient, but antifragile. This story first appeared in the February 2023 issue of Inside Retail Magazine.