Maureen and Ira

Leadership in Turbulent Times: What Are International Leaders Saying?

By Maureen Metcalf 

Maureen MetcalfMaureen Metcalf, CEO and Founder of Metcalf & Associates, is a renowned executive advisor, author, speaker, and coach whose 30 years of business experience provides high-impact, practical solutions that support her clients’ leadership development and organizational transformations. Maureen is recognized as an innovative, principled thought leader who combines intellectual rigor and discipline with an ability to translate theory into practice. Her operational skills are coupled with a strategic ability to analyze, develop, and implement successful strategies for profitability, growth, and sustainability.

As I write this article, I’m excited to reflect on the 2017 ILA global conference theme, Leadership in Turbulent Times, and share wisdom gleaned from 12 VoiceAmerica interviews I conducted in Brussels at the conference last October. This is the second year I have interviewed keynote presenters, top speakers, political leaders, board members, and organizers in the role of media partner. The interviews resulting from this collaboration began airing January 9, 2018 (See sidebar for complete schedule).

With a necessary focus right now on terrorist attacks and geopolitical instability across continents, and with the increase of populism as well as the impact of the rapid pace of technological advances, the logical theme of the conference was “Leadership in Turbulent Times.” It sounds ominous, right? The word turbulence typically creates anxiety and fear because it is never associated with something promising or hopeful. It is defined as conflict, confusion, and unsteady movement. I’d like, however, to offer a new way to think about turbulence. Change is never a result of stagnation, and only by churning ideas and challenging old schemata can we evolve. Turbulence, therefore, offers new opportunities across a broad range of sectors. While the challenges are more complex, and the world feels less safe, we have greater opportunities to make positive change than at any other time in recent history.

Turbulence is an ongoing condition to be managed, not a problem to be solved. Here is a summary of my key take-aways from presentations, conversations, and twelve hours of interviews I conducted for VoiceAmerica.

  1. Maureen and PapandreouLeadership is an interplay between our individual purpose and values, our behaviors, organizational culture, and systems and processes. It requires continual adjustment to maintain alignment between all four elements, an adjustment that is akin to a finely choreographed dance. It is ongoing and requires continuous attention and expertise. All aspects of the dance start with leadership having a self-awareness of purpose and values. This self-awareness provides the inner compass from which the leader leads the organization.
  2. Purpose and self-awareness are the foundation of effective leadership. Self-awareness is not an activity to accomplish once. It is a practice to be done regularly and routinely. When asked, most people want to make the world better than they found it. Leaders who can translate this sense of purpose into their unique commitment to action in the world are more effective as leaders because they have a North Star to guide their actions. When they share this purpose with those they lead, they build trust and inspire commitment.
  3. Reflection takes time — and it is a requirement. Reflection and meditation provide a physiological advantage by impacting the neural network in your brain. One of the precepts of self-awareness is the “moment of awareness” when we take a deep breath, pause, and ask ourselves what outcome we want in a moment. This brief pause allows us to be fully present and clear before we take our next step. The ability to pause and reflect, for a moment or longer, allows leaders to stay centered and grounded in times of high pressure.
  4. ElianeLeaders have many roles, including chief culture officer. Culture leaders are akin to musical conductors. Through their actions and attitude, they set the tone of the organization and the underlying agreements supporting that tone. In doing so, leaders create the culture in organizations that supports the purpose and values they claim to hold. Organizations living their purpose do not show it in a poster on the wall but through the underlying rhythm and music of a strong dance performance. The conductor becomes the music that inspires, sets the tempo and tone, and informs action. If the rhythm changes, so do the movements of the dancers. A strong culture offers a competitive advantage and makes successful organizations hard or impossible to emulate. One recommendation I heard repeatedly is that leaders need to create a culture of openness and safety. Awareness of the culture provides leaders with multiple perspectives so that they can adjust quickly to changes in the environment.
  5. Leaders need to inspire followership and know when to follow. Leaders are those formally recognized for their leadership role, some of them have the title of leader and others do not. We rarely talk about leaders as followers. Most leaders report to someone including boards of directors. Leaders need to learn to both lead and follow. They also need to teach those who follow them how they would like to be followed. Back to the metaphor of the dance, each dancer is different, the interplay between different leaders and followers is unique even with the same music. Another topic generally not discussed, but highlighted at this conference, is the idea of ethical dissent — when we chose not to follow and how we courageously hold our leaders accountable.
  6. People want to perform effectively. Organizational systems need to support peoples’ positive intentions and skills. Spend less time creating systems to weed out shirkers and poor performers and more time creating a culture that enables people with purpose to do the work that fulfills them and that concurrently serves the organization’s mission and success.
  7. Teams have become far more important in the current environment. Effective teams are based on the members’ ability to communicate effectively, often across the globe. A key factor in effective team interactions is building relationships with individuals. This is best done in person and, then, can be sustained remotely. There is no substitute for strong relationships when navigating complex work.
  8. Effective communication and learning organizations have become more important with the complexity of the challenges and geographic dispersion of teams. Communication requires both strong listening skills and the ability to speak simply and concisely, including attending to conflict and complexity when necessary. It also means unflinching accountability. Leaders must be accountable for their role when problems arise, and look forward with vision of the future rather than looking back and fault finding. It is important to learn from challenges and mistakes and remain agile in the face of ongoing change. Vision forward and data analysis backward creates learning organizations.
  9. Maureen and John HeiserOrganizations must align their purpose with that of the stakeholders within as well as with clients, and the local and global community. Making a profit is the fuel for company survival, but it is not the fuel to thrive. Companies must find the intersection between company success and social action in order to make a positive profit while, at the same time, making a positive social impact. John Heiser, the President & Chief Operating Officer of Magnetrol International, gave a beautiful example of hiring autistic adults to perform tasks for which they are best qualified. This approach allows the company to attract and retain people whose skills match their jobs as well as provide meaningful work for people in the community who often don’t find opportunities. He gave several examples of how companies could align their interests with those of the community.
  10. Global peace and security depend on recognizing our innate nature to be peaceful. When we follow our true nature, we are peaceful beings. Conference presenters and attendees I interacted with talked about the intersection of creating individual conditions in which people can express their inner goodness and, at the same time, create cultures and systems that promote peaceful work and lives.

Maureen and Mike HardyI left the conversations feeling hopeful that compassionate, wise, and highly-successful academics, executives, politicians, and military leaders are sharing their best thinking with one another at the conference and beyond. They forge and renew relationships, and identify new opportunities to collaborate to make positive change. This forum is one in which leadership as an art and science evolves through people and their interactions.

I hope this article inspires you to listen to select interviews or, even better, the entire interview series! Interviews from 2016 are being used in academic and professional leadership development programs around the world. I encourage you to share this information freely. This complimentary set of interviews are content rich, exposing listeners to the subtleties required to build leadership acumen, and give insight into those who have made a commitment to work and to live at the intersection between exceptional research and practice in leadership.

Photos (top-bottom):  Maureen Metcalf and Ira Chaleff; Metcalf and George Papandreou;  Éliane Ubalijoro;  Metcalf and John Heiser; Metcalf and Mike Hardy. 

A version of this article originally appeared in Forbes.com and is reprinted with permission of the copyright holder.

About Podcast Playlist

Podcast Playlist shines a spotlight on that digital dynamo of the early 21st century, the podcast. Each column features a podcast program or individual episodes from different programs that pertain to leadership.


Please note: All shows air at 11:00 AM Pacific Time and on-demand afterwards.

9 Jan. 2018 - Leaders Building on Moral Purpose to Create a Just World

Interviewee: Jorrit Volkers, Dean, Deloitte University EMEA & George Papandreou, Former Prime Minister of Greece
16 Jan. 2018 - Maximizing Profit and Social Impact Concurrently - A Case Study

Interviewee: John Heiser, ILA Board Member; President & Chief Operating Officer, Magnetrol International, Incorporated
23 Jan. 2018 - How Do We Work and Live with Purpose and Compassion?

Interviewee: Éliane Ubalijoro, ILA Board Member; Professor of Practice, Institute for the Study of International Development, McGill University, Canada; Member, Presidential Advisory Council for Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Rwanda
30 Jan. 2018 - Dialogical Leadership: Understanding How It Impacts Success

Interviewee: Rens van Loon, ILA Board Member; Professor & Consultant specialized in leadership and organizational change and transformation.
6 Feb. 2018 - Creating Mindful Organizations

Interviewee: Subhanu Saxena, Regional Director Life Science Partnerships, Europe at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation & Michelle Harrison, Global CEO, Kantar Public, the WPP Group public policy consulting and research business.
13 Feb. 2018 - How Would We Lead If We Believed Humans Were a Peaceful Species?

Interviewee: Mike Hardy, ILA Board Member; Founding and Executive Director of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University, UK.
20 Feb. 2018 - Inner Peace Nurtures Global Impact

Interviewee: Kathryn Goldman Schuyler, Organizational Consultant, Leadership Coach, Public Speaker and Author; Editor of Creative Social Change: Leadership for a Healthy World
27 Feb. 2018 - The Dance Between Leadership and Followership

Interviewee: Margaret Heffernan, Author of five books, Lead Faculty for the Forward Institute’s Responsible Leadership Program & Ira Chaleff, Founder and President of Executive Coaching and Consulting Associates
6 Mar. 2018 - Values and Storytelling to Deliver Results

Interviewee: Sebastian Salicru, Director of PTS Consultants, an Associate of Melbourne Business School – Executive Education, and Fellow of the Institute of Coaching (McLean/Harvard Medical School) & Michelle Harrison, Global CEO, Kantar Public, the WPP Group public policy consulting and research business.
13 Mar. 2018 - Leveraging Polarities in Complex and Turbulent Times

Interviewee: Barry Johnson, Creator of the first Polarity Map® and set of principles; author
20 Mar. 2018 - Geneva Center for Security Policy – Exploring Leadership and Global Security Issues

Interviewee: Patrick Sweet and Peter Cunningham, Co-Directors, Leadership Alliance for the Geneva Centre for Security Policy – Center for Creative Leadership
27 Mar. 2018 - The Nexis of Leadership and Practice - Royal Dutch Shell and ILA

Interviewee: Jeroen van der Veer, Former CEO of Royal Dutch Shell plc & Cynthia Cherry, President and CEO of the International Leadership Association