This week’s article is written by Peter Cunningham, Head of Leadership at the Geneva Center for Security Policy.  It is a companion to his and Ambassador Thomas Greminger’s interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled Facing a Global Leadership Crisis—Insights from GCSP that aired on Tuesday, February 15th, 2022.


Here’s a short clip from the interview: Here’s the full interview:


It is widely held that it was Seneca who said, “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”. While for many of us, luck is not a term we might particularly associate with the past two years, there is an ongoing, globally shared, developmental opportunity underway. We are all exposed to higher levels of complexity, ambiguity, and the uncertainties they generate. Senior leaders (especially in the private sector and the military) often go through many years of preparation to deal with the experience of no one telling you what to do and being expected to make sense of complex situations and judging what direction to take and what choices to make.

In some sense, over the last two years, everyone has had a taste of what that feels like, when it comes to making decisions that affect our families, our colleagues, and our communities. Without having had the benefit of those years of preparation, for many it can be unsettling and confusing. Like any potentially transformational experience, there is discomfort to navigate if we are to grow and learn from it.

The year 2020 could be characterised as a huge wave of disruption – we had to ride it as best we could, experiment with entirely different ways of living and working, and be tolerant; 2021 became about the hard work of learning how to live and work well within this ongoing disruption. As we enter a 3rd year of disruption there is a cumulative change dynamic, and we need to lift our sights beyond crisis response (that has itself become normalised) while maintaining the capability to quickly flip back if needed.  Leaders are faced with the task of having to cast their minds into the future to try and predict what might happen in the months ahead and how best to respond and prepare themselves, their teams, and organisations.

From having paid close attention over the last decade to many organisations and leaders in the International Peace & Security sector – characterised as having high exposure to ambiguity, tensions, humanitarian challenges and complex multi-actor issues – the following 4 practices may set leaders and therefore organisational cultures apart in the year ahead.

  1. Engage in Collective Sensemaking

Attempting to predict the future is for the most part a fool’s game. However, there is real value in dipping into the toolkit of the Strategic Foresight community and engaging in identifying plausible scenarios you might experience 9 or 12 months from now and how you might prepare for these or even work toward the realisation of a preferred scenario. An important element is to make this a diverse and collective activity. If only a small, homogenous group does this then the scenarios they will come up with will be limited and of less value. The more diverse perspectives that you can involve, the richer, more nuanced, and more informative those scenarios will be. Revisiting and amending these scenarios every few months will instill a practice of continuous Sensemaking over time, meaning people will be more attuned to early signals of change and feel safe enough to bring them to everyone’s attention.

  1. Provide medium-term clarity and focus

It will be important in 2022 to define some medium- and longer-term changes that you believe should remain beyond this pandemic. As Yogi Bear once remarked: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

A head of strategy for an international foundation recently explained how they pushed for the organisation to set out a 10-year strategy, effectively doubling their normal time horizon. It involved less detailed metric-driven specificity and more purposefulness to counter the external disruptions they were experiencing. Doing this was challenging for the leadership team yet it helped them communicate a clear direction that stretched beyond the immediate crisis response experience and helped provide a sense of reassurance and focus to counter the anxiety many people felt.


  1. Create space for curiousity

Alongside many advantages, one of the risks associated with working remotely, for fortunate enough to be able to adapt to this, is the tendency to become overly task-oriented when you do meet online but also when you are working alone from home. It is important to invest in creating the space for less structured guided interactions and thought. You can revolve these around a particular topic or issue or leave it entirely open with just a simple guiding question.

It can be valuable to carve out some space for more curiousity led thinking and interaction without always having a detailed agenda, task, or a pre-determined outcome. These tend to limit people’s openness to thinking about possibilities and reduce their ability to engage with high levels of ambiguity.

Not only is this motivating for many people, but it will also generate insights and ideas on how to choose what longer-term changes are needed. It also sends a message that you trust people to come up with meaningful ideas and solutions. There is another longer-term benefit; curiousity lies at the heart of a learning mindset and it is such a mindset that tends to better tolerate complexity and ambiguity.


  1. Capacity to collide and converge

When we ask people to reflect on a team or collaborative experience that they were proud to be part of, it often involved tensions or conflicts that were overcome. In fact, having overcome such tensions and turning them into positive relations and outcomes is often what people are most proud of. At a time when returning to more face-to-face interaction is likely and public polarisation is high around issues like vaccines and work preferences, pay extra attention to early warnings of issues that can lead to conflict and develop the capacity at all levels to not just navigate this but encourage openness and constructive discussion that surfaces ‘elephants in the room’ can improve collaboration.

If it is indeed true that there will be an increase in talented people seeking to contribute to organisations and initiatives that align with what matters to them most. All four of these practices have in common that they contribute to increased trust, inclusion, psychological safety and are foundations of a resilient, more caring and courageous culture of work.


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Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.


About the Author

Peter Cunningham is Head of Leadership at GCSP and Co-Founder of the Geneva Leadership Alliance, a network of associates and partner organisations working together to advance the understanding and practice of leadership for the benefit of peace and security worldwide.

Peter has over 20 years of experience in leadership development, adult education, and executive coaching across private, public, and non-profit sectors. He is constantly seeking new, diverse, and innovative ways to bridge the study of leadership with the practice of leading, especially at international level and across cultural, geo-graphical, political and organisational divides. Leveraging his diverse experience and background, he creates safe spaces for learning and encourages brave spaces for application, enabling people to learn leadership mindsets and practices in transformative ways and adapt them to their own work and life.

Photo by Fabienne FILIPPONE on Unsplash