Is leadership rising to the occasion?

Global Peter Drucker Forum_EFMD_Eric Cornuel_leadership

Prof. Eric Cornuel, President of EFMD Global reflects on the leadership challenges in the increasingly complex global environment. This text was adapted from Eric’s opening salvos at the 12th Global Peter Drucker Forum on 29 October 2020.

Looking to the past, from ancient Egypt to China, or from Aristotle to Saint Thomas Aquinas, it is clear that leadership skills have not really changed much over the centuries. So it’s not surprising that Peter Drucker’s ideas are so popular today, particularly given that throughout his life he continued to formalise his ideas and bring them up to date.

Of course, there are many skills a leader should possess, all of which are familiar: creativity, intuition, agility, authenticity, and a good dose of emotional and cultural intelligence. A leader should build trust with stakeholders through accountability, humility and benevolence. Or, as Peter Drucker put it, a leader is somebody others follow.

I would suggest we add improvisation to the list. In the past, the ability to improvise was not viewed positively, but today it is very much needed in our complex and unpredictable world, as the Covid crisis has demonstrated. Finally, I believe the capacity to forgive as well as acknowledge mistakes is a crucial leadership skill, allowing people to transcend their routines and experiment with systems and techniques that may succeed or fail.

The crisis of constrained leadership

This is all well and good, but the real question for us today is whether leaders can apply their talents freely. Here I would argue that we are facing a global situation of what I call “constrained leadership”. The shareholder value theory has established rules that propel managers and leaders to favour short-term returns over long-term sustainability and societal impact, sometimes taking this to the very extreme. Here, even the situational theory does not help.

This short-termism also prevails in politics, where many politicians are largely reactive, and more interested in winning the next elections than in being proactive, creative, courageous or working with a view to the long-term picture. Here too, the Covid-19 pandemic has been an additional eye-opener.

Such approaches have led us to a deep crisis of legitimacy affecting all the elites, and this could potentially drive us to even greater social and societal dramas. Let us not forget Karl Marx who said the end of capitalism will come from finance. In light of current events, it seems he was not far off the truth.


Leadership Global Peter Drucker Forum 2020_EFMD_Eric Cornuel


A new model for leadership?

We urgently need to review our leadership model and return to a genuine stakeholder approach. Let me remind you that this vision was developed in the 1950s, and, moreover, in the US. It seems funny but it’s true!

The Covid crisis has certainly accelerated the change in a world where the fourth industrial revolution has increased inequalities, anxiety and disorientation through the constant flow of fake news communicated digitally everywhere in the world within seconds.

A lack of leadership in political and business governance will result in over-stressed societies, mass unemployment and all the societal implications this entails. We risk seeing ever more disenchanted and angry citizens of all generations forming a precariat, or precarious proletariat, as so well described by Guy Standing.

Harnessing the potential of business education

Finally, a quick word on my own industry, the business schools. Our current model favours academic research loosely coupled with societal needs. But this model must evolve fast, otherwise, we may go from ‘publish or perish’ to ‘publish and perish.’ Now more than ever, we need faculty members to be engaged in all sorts of research, innovation in teaching, engagement in society and communities. All forms of engagement are valid and legitimate. Above all, we must never forget that we have not only a scientific mission but a societal one as well.

Faced with the intellectual vacuum and, at times, complete lack of innovative spirit offered by many politicians and companies, I believe that academia must speak out. We should be catalysts, whistleblowers and change agents to help reconcile management, technology, development and societies. For, if we don’t speak out, who will?

The Covid crisis makes it more important than ever to take a more global approach to recovery. We need more cooperation between states and a greater emphasis on societal issues. The question remains: is this a credible scenario? Is there room for optimism? Or will the political and economic agendas of the few push us towards wilder capitalism driven by toxic, opportunistic and populistic leaders?

Academia in general, and business schools in particular, have the potential to be agents of change here. But in order to fulfil this potential, we have to ask ourselves: what kind of actions or initiatives are necessary to hasten our reorientation towards a more socially-engaged and heuristic approach?