Leadership lessons from Coronavirus

September 22, 2021

Book covers for The Difference & Rebel Ideas

Diverse thinking and teams

We need a new type of leadership. Less heroic, more inclusive and inclusive and empathetic. I recently suggested this in an earlier post. A lot of the discussion focussed on the gender of the leader. It’s notable that many national leaders that are women, are handling this crisis well. Evidence that we need to address representation at the top.

But, as some pointed out, the more substantive point is not the gender of the leader but the ability to lead a team. Team leadership is critical in this crisis.

In this blog I talk about some of the reasons that leading a diverse team is so critical in this crisis. The upcoming “Science of Team Science” is seeking to foster the kind of interdisciplinary teamwork we need. Thanks Michael O’Leary for mentioning this event.

We need to take this opportunity to rethink how we develop leaders and managers. It’s estimated that we spend over $160 billion on corporate training but only 10% has any impact. Leaders are still trained in ivory towers. Far away from the teams they lead. This needs to change.

Today’s problems are not simple. Neither are the teams that will solve them.

The number one priority now is to find a vaccine for Covid 19. The research is being done by teams, not individuals. It will not be a lone scientist and a Eureka moment. There are around twenty teams hard at work around the world. Most Nobel prizes for science are now awarded to a group - not an individual.

The “Science of Team Science” is a conference. It sounds quite meta! But the underlying motive is profound. The purpose is to help scientists collaborate. I spoke to an organiser some years ago. He explained that most great scientific challenges now need interdisciplinary collaboration. An example was zoonotic disease. Zoonotic diseases are caused by a pathogen that jumps from animals to humans. But, scientists that have studied animal disease and human diseases are in different camps. Understanding the transfer requires cross disciplinary collaboration.

I’ve thought about that conversation a lot since. Especially in the last few months.

Many had predicted the current pandemic. If you don’t believe this watch Bill Gates Ted Talk. Sally Davies speaking as Chief Medical officer or even the film Contagion. But we failed to take collective action.

To respond to the significant challenges we face, we need collaboration and diverse thinking. We need to get better at teamwork. This isn’t just a problem at the top. It’s something we need to fix at grass roots level. A successful national football team needs healthy grass roots football. High profile senior team dynamics are founded by understanding teamwork earlier in life.

In fact, Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, has said that teamwork should be a foundation taught in schools. “My job" he said at a recent World Economic Forum “is to make sure that smart people can work together. Stupid people can work together easily, smart people struggle to work together.” It’s critical to be able to work with a team of people that think differently.

Two excellent books on this subject include Scott Page’s “The Difference” and Mathew Syed’s “Rebel Ideas”.

Mathew Syed opens his book with a discussion of the intelligence failings before 9/11. He quotes Carmen Medina, former deputy director of intelligence. “The CIA has not met its own goals for diversity. If the composition of the US National Security community is such that everyone has one world view, we are not in a position to understand our adversaries and anticipate what they are going to do.”


In times of crisis - when we need diverse opinions to be heard - it's  easy  to fall back on the belief in the “dominant leader”. “Within organisations, dominant individuals tend to rise more rapidly during times of uncertainty. The strong voice, the authoritarian personality, provides reassurance for the loss of control we collectively feel”


Scott Page applies empirical analysis to highlight the power of diverse thinking. The Difference explains “how the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools and societies”.  It's brimming with evidence and examples. “To put this in some context, consider four current large scale issues: environmental sustainability, world poverty, international security, and disease.

Significant breakthroughs in any of these areas will require the perspectives of physicists, chemists, biologists, psychologists, sociologists, immunologists, economists, and political scientists - and more.”


Some feel that saying teamwork is important is a bit “motherhood and apple pie”. After all, no one is against teamwork!


But whilst the principles of managing diverse teams are well researched. We have found that they are not widely applied or understood.


We are not taught the principles of working in teams in schools. Alluding to how useful sports or an orchestra is for teaching teamwork is not enough. We need to teach kids how to collaborate to solve difficult problems from an early age. The curriculum is still far too focussed on individual work because it’s easier to examine.


At work, most “leadership training” happens in an ivory tower - separated from the team. The way we train and develop managers and leaders need to change to make this happen. American companies spend $160 billion ($356 billion globally in 2015) on corporate training.  But they are not getting a good return on their investment. Some estimate that only 10% has any impact.


Leaders need to embrace feisty, opinionated and challenging team members. The best leaders in this crisis are doing this already.

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