C-Suite Agenda

Implications For Leaders During A Time Of Significant Workplace Change

Crises have impacted human existence for centuries. In recent times several economic crises have made and lost individual and collective fortunes and have profoundly shaped local and world economies, societies, and the communities we reside in.

Resorting to a myopic view of a crisis runs the risk of overlooking the opportunities that each one offers. Crises, although different in their genesis and composition, are often linked by several common themes:

  1. inherent value in review, improvement, and renewal
  2. abundance of opportunity to innovate and revitalize
  3. how individuals and organisations choose, or not, to adapt shaping leaders and leadership

The past informs the future 

A review of some of the crises in the last 120 years highlights how these events have affected our lives, career opportunities and the world around us. Each one has built on the last and impacted and shaped local and global economies, business, governments and how we socialise as well as leaving indelible generational markers.

I have set out below a brief chronology of major events and crises to be illustrative of common themes that determine economic trends and social norms that ultimately serve to bind us together.

1914 to 1918 – World War 1 – significantly changed the political, cultural, economic, and social makeup of the world.

1918 to 1919 – The Spanish Flu was a deadly pandemic. Some suggested that it was a factor in the 1920s baby boom as those that remained were healthier and better able to reproduce. It’s also thought to have contributed to a rise in alternate medicines as many became wary of science.

1929 to 1933 – The Great Depression began in the United States and was the deepest, most widespread economic depression of the 20th century and had devastating economic and social impacts. It didn’t end the ‘American-dream’ as some thought it might at that time but instead broadened the dream to include one’s expectation of material rewards.

1939 to 1935 – World War 2 changed the social structure of the world along with political alignments which led to the establishment of The United Nations (UN) to foster international co-operation and prevent future conflicts.

Circa 1987 – The asset boom & rapid rise of the entrepreneurs inspired a new generation of overzealous and unscrupulous entrepreneurs. Wealth creation was considered a rite of passage and almost anything seemed possible and anything went with shocking financial repercussions. This reminded communities of the importance of accountability, ethics and being egalitarian.

1990 to 1991 – Keating’s Australian recession that “we had to have” followed a financial meltdown spawned by the exuberant and heady days of the late nineteen-eighties. This event contributed to changing a long held notion of a job for life and individuals realised they had to manage their own careers.

2007 to 2008 – The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) shook the foundations of financial institutions around the world. This significantly changed the structure, integrity protocols and ethics to provide a more robust operating environment for financial institutions and the broader business community everywhere.

2020 to ?? The Covid-19 pandemic crisis. By March 2020 it became clear the world was experiencing a highly contagious and deadly variant of the Corona Virus (Covid-19). As of this writing the future for business and socialisation remains unclear.

A prevailing human spirit 

While all these crises were unique, the one aspect they have in common is that the human race managed to get though each one notwithstanding the Covid-19 crisis is yet to be resolved. They all served to provide hope, reinforce that bad times don’t last and showcase our innate adaptability as a human race. The strength of the human spirt is a powerful thing.

Looking to the future & implications for leaders in the new reality

The Corona virus health crisis has proved stunning in the speed of transmission and intensity of global impacts on humans and economies however provides, like previous crises, an exceptional opportunity to recalibrate and fix historic stumbling blocks to progress. We can choose to see the solution or stay stuck in the problem. It is a choice of investing the power in people or relinquishing it to the crisis if the opportunities afforded are missed.

This crisis will define leaders and their organisations. It can be their finest or darkest hour that will have lingering effects long after the virus has dissipated. Some will emerge stronger while others will be weakened by it. Moreover, it will have a profound impact on leaders and organisations, for the better or worse, as determined by responses and actions.

Leaders must drive and manage change moving forward. It’s not so much about a ‘new normal’ but rather a new reality, where business and other organisational leaders are required to rethink everything. It presents an exceptional opportunity for leaders to reinvent and renew, casting aside outdated, ineffective and inefficient practices and replacing them with what will work today and for the future.

It follows that leaders will need to fine-tune their approach by:

  • critically reflecting on and reviewing organisational values, culture and business strategy
  • close and careful scrutiny of costs (fixed and variable) and productivity
  • focusing on people resourcing, capability and development
  • building and fostering trust
  • developing high level leadership capability, particularly change management, coaching, interpersonal and communication skills
  • placing a strong focus on employee experience, engagement and mobility
  • taking a proactive and ‘hands on’ approach with employee career development

This leadership capability has never been more important. I would strongly encourage all leaders, if they haven’t already started, to review and renew as a priority. Learn from the lessons of past crises and combine this insight with the knowledge and experiences of today to overcome the challenges of tomorrow and, in so doing, build better businesses and a better world.


Written by Greg Smith. Here’s what you’ve missed?
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Greg Smith
Greg Smith is an expert in career development, talent management and organisational leadership. The co-founder of HR consulting firm, deliberatepractice, he helps aspiring, emerging and experienced leaders to develop their everyday leadership skill set. He is the author of Career Conversations: How to get the best from your talent pool (Wiley), winner of The Australian Career Book Award for 2019. Greg Smith is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on LinkedIn.