Punctuated Organizational Equilibrium – Selection Moving Forward

Punctuated Organizational Equilibrium – Selection Moving Forward

While everyone’s talking about the “new normal” and how things are going to change due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, we want to challenge the mythology in today’s press that talent and the type of talent needed has actually changed. Whether you read The Washington Post, Harvard Business ReviewThe New York Times or Scientific American, there are perspectives urging executives and leaders to potentially change who they are — become more creative, innovative, or agile— rather than amplify the strengths those leaders already, naturally, hold.  

During this unprecedented time, all of us have been inundated with discussions about the future of work, talent, what we are all doing, how are we doing it and how we will make it work, meanwhile sending the undertone that leaders need to change who they are. Without a doubt, organizations have been besieged by levels of change they may never have seen, especially from the lens of the pandemic – creating challenges in work-life integration and shifting where and how people are working. Even so, we have had periods like this before but that never necessitated leaders changing who they are.  

During our 60+ years of research, we have studied millions of leaders in our pursuit of defining leadership excellence. We have deeply evaluated leadership through incredible periods of tumult and change in society – civil rights movements, global health crises, political and economic meltdowns. Discussions today about leaders today are simply amplifying what we know through our research that great leaders already do. Top leaders lean into their own natural strengths and navigate the tide. 

Without a doubt, organizations are experiencing punctuated organizational equilibrium and facing a tremendous amount of change. 

Punctuated equilibrium comes from biology and public policy to describe disruptive, organizational change – what is going on inside an organization and what is causing them to experience periods of instability. Most of the time, organizations experience incremental change and intervals of comforting periods of stability at the same time. Periodically, however, they experience fractious shifts like those of today that cause them to be in a punctuated equilibrium state where there’s a great disruption occurring and changing the way they do things in their course of traditional business practices.  

How do we face the unknowns leaders face today? 

We recently performed a thought exercise with our Advisors Network, all of whom are at the apex of their respective industries—health care, hospitality, retail and others. We asked them to write down the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that characterize the best leaders for each of the following questions: 

  • If you were going to describe the best leader before COVID-19, how would you describe them?  
  • Now shift your mindset to a post-COVID environment, are there additional traits or characteristics you think are important that you didn’t include in your first list? 
  • Compare your two lists. Are there any words on the second list that weren’t important before COVID-19? 

We learned their answer was a distinctive “No” to the final question. The best leaders have been, are and will always need to possess these very traits they considered. These are some of the key traits they offered and our research shows they drive organizational effectiveness and leadership excellence: authentic, compassionate, humble, empathetic, focused, empowering, optimistic, visionary, clear communicator, effective at executing, setting and demanding high standards of excellence, and developing others. These traits need to be amplified during a crisis and they are traits strong leaders already should possess. Stand on your talent foundation and lead with your signature strengths. 

As Colin Powell states, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier” and leaders have a choice as an organization to merely survive or thrive and embrace the unknown. We believe the world is getting better and this is a moment, albeit difficult and challenging, that too shall pass. Leaders must lean into their strengths to deliver now and for the future.