Leaders must focus on “invisible” processes to survive COVID crisis – new book by INSEAD professor

Middle East, Americas, Asia, Europe
30 June 2020

A new book by INSEAD Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Charles Galunic, reveals that when facing existential questions leaders need to turn, above all, to “invisible institutions”. Such backstage, core processes are critical for the effective running of any organization and even more so during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

The book, titled “Backstage Leadership: The Invisible Work of Highly Effective Leaders”, published by Palgrave-Macmillan, reveals the “silent work of leadership that garners real results.” With an emphasis on strategy, Galunic provides an integrated toolkit for developing the knowledge and skills of a “backstage leader.” It demonstrates how managers can and must:

  • Mobilise people towards new strategic directions
  • Scan their business environment for threats and disruptive forces
  • Diagnose and help to shape the culture of an organisation
  • Develop talent and capabilities towards a specific goal

Professor Galunic says: “The book looks at those mostly silent, backstage processes and logics, sort of like the plumbing, electrics, and basic framework of a building. They are not the flashy, frontstage things that typically get more attention such as style, communications, and presence. Business leaders need to look more out of their office window. They need to acquire better diagnostic and action tools for managing their context and their organisational environment. Leaders should appreciate that a good deal of their influence will be in how they shape the context, which subsequently shapes behavior. This is how you achieve influence, even from a distance.”

Galunic explains that core institutions and backstage processes are vital to the survival and health of a company at any time. Yet now they become even more crucial to provide pathways out of the current COVID-19 crisis.

The pandemic, he says, gives rise to three implications for organisations’ leaders.

  • First, he says, what people are looking for above all else - except immediate physical safety - is sense making: “We are all struggling with ambiguity and uncertainty. We need leaders who provide meaning, depth of understanding, better questions, and some inspiring directions. These are the foundations of hope.”
  • Secondly, in adapting to the situation in terms of strategy, structures, and logistics, organisations will need to mobilise more people - and faster than ever before. More importantly in his view, leaders will have to make decisions about how autocratic they will be, versus how much engagement they will offer. How they manage this divide will have longer-term implications.
  • Finally, more than ever, leaders need to embrace a fundamental contradiction: exploration vs. exploitation (or efficiency). He explains: “The knee-jerk reaction will be to focus hard on efficiencies. If this is done at the total abandonment of exploratory and inventive work, they may survive in the short run but not in the medium run, or become irrelevant.”

Charles Galunic is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour and the Aviva Chaired Professor of Leadership and Responsibility at INSEAD. He directs one of INSEAD’s flagship Executive Education programs, The Transition to General Management Programme (TGM). Galunic has been a pioneer of several courses including the core EMBA course on Leading People and Organisations. He also teaches in a variety of INSEAD Executive Education programmes, both in Fontainebleau and in Asia, and has been recognised often for his teaching excellence. Galunic has published in various academic and practitioner-oriented journals, including the Harvard Business Review, Journal of Managerial and Decision Economics, Administrative Science Quarterly, and others. He has also worked with numerous companies and executives, across various industries and continents, in order to help them develop their senior leadership skills and solve pressing cultural challenges in practical ways.

About INSEAD, The Business School for the World

As one of the world’s leading and largest graduate business schools, INSEAD brings together people, cultures and ideas to develop responsible leaders who transform business and society. Our research, teaching and partnerships reflect this global perspective and cultural diversity.

With locations in Europe (France), Asia (Singapore), the Middle East (Abu Dhabi), and now North America (San Francisco), INSEAD's business education and research spans four regions. Our 165 renowned Faculty members from 41 countries inspire more than 1,300 degree participants annually in our MBA, Global Executive MBA, Specialised Master’s degrees (Executive Master in Finance and Executive Master in Change) and PhD programmes. In addition, more than 11,000 executives participate in INSEAD Executive Education programmes each year.

INSEAD continues to conduct cutting-edge research and innovate across all our programmes. We provide business leaders with the knowledge and awareness to operate anywhere. Our core values drive academic excellence and serve the global community as The Business School for the World.

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