Skip to content

Unilever Australia & New Zealand Change location


Bright illustration with text 'Leadership injection' overlaid

A shot in the arm for a new kind of leadership

Our Australia and New Zealand CEO, Nicole Sparshott shares her reflections leading through COVID-19 and beyond.

2021 so far has been another extraordinary year by all accounts, with the COVID-19 pandemic rewriting the rules of upheaval across countries and industries.

Globally, it has created a massive humanitarian challenge, with millions ill, and unfathomable numbers of lives lost. We see governments straining to deliver critical services and NGOs stretched beyond their capacity. Unemployment rates have soared, and economic and health pressure has given further rise to societal and political fault lines. A heightened focus on social inequality and climate change threatens our shared stability.

The pandemic has brought huge challenges for business, ranging from how people work, to the functioning of supply chains, evolving business models and even how success is measured. In Australia, COVID-19 came off the back of some of the worst droughts the country has ever seen, closely followed by devastating bushfires and havoc-wreaking floods in some areas. Whilst COVID-19 dominates the headlines, these other issues simmer, waiting to be fully resolved. The pandemic was like hitting the boxer when he was already down.

The relief we had in early 2021 was relatively short lived and if there was any question around whether taking anything for granted was a risky strategy (in work or personal life), then the recent lockdowns, now impacting much of Australia, is a good reminder.

From a leadership lens, COVID-19 has created a pressurised operating environment, which very few of us have ever experienced. We are living in a paradoxical world and the landscape has never required the management of duality more than ever before – in business, in government and in the community. Health and economy; productivity and wellbeing; sustainability and profit; online and offline; today and tomorrow. It is not sufficient to solely do one well or to be linear in the way we approach it; the inconvenient truth is that we no longer have the luxury of singularity of focus. Reflection would suggest we probably never did. In managing the duality of objectives, CEOs and other leaders have had to learn to sustain both reflective inaction, alongside the imperative for decisive (and sometimes, divisive) action.

Alongside the tragedy and challenge of COVID-19, we have paradoxically seen some incredible examples of adaptability, creativity and innovation. Why is it that some leaders and teams have, with the same resources (or indeed, less), been able to deliver outcomes faster, with more impact and more care than ever before? Why have some companies been able to establish a stronger foundation on which to raise issues and give rise to inventive, untested solutions and greater forms of pre-competitive collaboration? What have leaders done differently to enable an environment where team members can unleash these strengths and how we can harness the learnings from this time to benefit organisational performance into the future and create new leadership norms?

What is certainly true is that the complex, adaptive challenge presented by the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be successfully navigated by any leader acting alone. Rather, it is the ability to unleash the superpowers of many leaders through the organisation, that has resulted in remarkable outcomes in difficult times. It could easily be argued that distributing leadership responsibilities is more effective than any other leadership action in a crisis – leveraging diverse perspectives and expertise to improve the quality of decision-making and problem solving.

It’s time to say goodbye to the traditional notions of leadership that comes with the ‘chief atop a pyramidal’ structure. Instead, we now unlock value through the creation of a ‘steerco of equals’, opening the way for latent capabilities and possibilities to flow.

The well-known psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl once said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”. Those who are able to master a multitude of leadership styles - nuanced for the situation at hand - are typically able to create the very best climate and business performance. Knowing when to lead from the front, or lead from within, or get the hell out of the way so that someone better equipped can do it, is a skill in itself.

The level of uncertainty and volatility in the coming months and years will continue, and with it, crisis-like situations will endure. It is COVID-19-related now but there will be others (sudden and smoldering) to come which we cannot even see yet. They will bring different variables and it is clear that different behaviours will be needed to confront them. Organisations need to be able to equip their leaders of today, and nurture their leaders of tomorrow, to have strong capabilities in communication, active and empathetic listening, and diverse and inclusive team building. Leaders will need to build muscle in a diverse leadership toolkit, to be able to navigate positive outcomes, irrespective of the situation they face.

From my vantage point, I can see a few things that help people cope: a purpose led orientation that paves the way for daily actions, to create meaningful impact. Care, vulnerability and courage arguably have become the new corporate currency, with compound benefit. Fear and love, both leveraged productively, can surface issues, elevate creativity and ultimately drive higher performance, with a ripple effect that not only benefits the organization, but also the broader community.

Ultimately, bringing humanity into leadership, is as necessary as a vaccine is to COVID.