Messi The Winner And Musk The Loser – 10 Leaders To Learn From In 2022

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2022 was another unpredictable year – but surely, we should be used to this by now?

As most global Covid restrictions became a thing of the past, other global crises emerged with the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, the oppression of Iranian women by their own government, and the continued drastic effects of climate change in countries like Pakistan which saw devastating floods and death tolls. all reflected the struggle that many faced this year.

And in an unpredictable, ever-changing world, it is more important than ever to practice preparedness. “The unthinkable not only can, but does, happen. And it is likely to happen again,” says Erika James, Dean of The Wharton School and co-author of The Prepared Leader. “How well-prepared organizations are when the next crisis strikes will determine the success, viability, longevity or ultimately their failure.”

Good leaders must successfully guide others through these crises. “New discoveries, start-ups, social impact enterprises and even Nobel prices cannot be attributed to one person’s doings alone,” explains Vincent Ligorio, Head of Institution at GBSB Global Business School. “Rather, these are excellent, complex developments that evolve from a series of successful, collective work processes.”

It is in these challenging periods that we see not only which leaders have prepared a plan, but also which leaders practice what they preach, have the best interests of those that they lead at heart, and are truly effective in their roles. And though 2022 has seen many struggles, we have also seen huge resilience from many leaders and their followers.

Resilience is clearly essential if you want to be a good leader, but what other skills do the great leaders of our time possess? And what lessons can you learn from them?

“The truly best leaders, carry on in modest obscurity. They never make it to lists,” warns renowned management guru Henry Mintzberg, Academic Director and Co-founder of the International Masters Programme for Managers (IMPM).

My apologies for the list Henry, but I’ve turned to experts in the field of leadership to shine a light on the best and worst leaders of 2022, and what you, as a manager can learn from their triumphs, as well as their mistakes.

Volodymyr Zelensky – President of Ukraine

Analysis from Vincent Giolito, Professor at emlyon business school

Since the Russian attack on February 24, 2022, the president of Ukraine has taught us at least three lessons that are valuable to all leaders. One, a leader is not as much the guide who single handedly knows both the destination and the roadmap, as the person who expresses the best of their people. For years Ukraine has strived to draw closer to the West and now, against the direst odds, the president serves his community by conveying this message consistently.

Two, while leadership may be understood as a one-way avenue, from leader to followers, Zelensky demonstrates the virtues of indirect leadership by forcefully including the world community in the loop. No doubt Ukrainians feel reinforced by knowing that their best spokesperson addresses Western leaders on an almost daily basis.

Three, leadership is often about repetition. To Ukrainians, Zelensky repeats: We resist. To the world: We need arms. Leaders should notice the most important word here. It is “We”. We the people of this community.

Yvon Chouinard – Founder of Patagonia

Analysis from Katleen De Stobbeleir, Professor in Leadership at Vlerick Business School

For me the best leader of 2022 is the self-proclaimed ‘reluctant businessman’ Yvon Chouinard. I admire the sustainability efforts he has made long before sustainability became an Olympic minimum – he consistently stays true to that purpose, and in 2022 he literally put his money where his mouth was by giving away all future profits of Patagonia to fight the climate and extinction crisis.

There are many things that business leaders can learn from Yvon Chouinard, but I will focus on integrity. My definition of integrity is pretty straightforward. It’s about behaving according to your values. But that’s easier said than done and many leaders lose sight of their core values in their pursuit of short-term objectives. Taking time for reflection enables leaders to reconnect with their values. For example, when Yvon Chouinard led Patagonia, he did not only talk about work-life balance but also role-modelled it by frequently taking time off, enjoying sabbaticals, etc. Taking time for reflection amidst all the action to ensure that your choices still match your purpose will make any leader more impactful. Reflection will enable you to listen to the whisper of your purpose and stay authentic.

Sanna Marin – Prime Minister of Finland

Analysis by Dr. Jan U. Hagen, director of management practice, ESMT Berlin

Besides Volodymyr Zelensky, who should rightly be recognized as the Best Leader of 2022 there is another political leader who has stood out for me this year. Sanna Marin, Finland’s prime minister, belongs to the left wing of her country’s Social Democratic Party. Since 2019, and despite a narrow parliamentary majority, she has led a stable government as Finland’s youngest prime minister to date, with women holding the majority of cabinet posts.

Marin’s greatest leadership achievement was to rigorously pursue Finland’s integration into NATO following Putin’s attack on Ukraine. She managed to implement this profound change in Finnish politics not only across domestic party lines, but also in close coordination with the Swedish government. Moreover, she refuses to gloss over mistakes and setbacks or sweep them under the rug; instead, she reflects on them critically, openly, and publicly. When, for example, private videos of her at a raucous party drew criticism this past summer, Marin addressed the issue, admitting the inappropriateness of the party in light of the Ukraine war and its consequences, while also emphasizing her right to a private life.

This did not damage her reputation. On the contrary, Finland’s youth – and women in particular – support her, consider her to be competent, and see her as the modern representative of an open leadership culture that is required in any successful organization.

Lionel Messi – Captain of the Argentina national football team

Analysis by Neil Graney, Professor in Management and Marketing at Durham University Business School

December 18th, 2022 will be forever embedded in Argentinian history. A third World Cup win, inspired, orchestrated and led by arguably the greatest ever player, Lionel Messi. In sport, greatness usually comes with ego, extroverts desperate to play the lead role in a team’s success, but Messi is different. Messi leads, but in a very different way – he’s a quiet leader, softly spoken, fairly reserved and happy to let his goalscoring do the talking. In addition, at this World Cup, we saw something different from Argentina – not their most capable squad, but a squad very much together under his leadership.

Here’s how he did it. One, his passion and dedication to his craft inspired the whole squad, even in moments of adversity. Two, despite his global superstar status, Messi was simply a cog in the wheel, scoring important goals and crucially, leading by example, by getting things done! Three, most impressively, getting the best from others. This was Messi’s last chance on the international stage – the missing trophy from a remarkably successful career – but he couldn’t do it on his own. The narrative in the run up to the tournament was a World Cup win for Messi. Vitally, he got his teammates to believe they could do it for him, as their leader – perhaps his greatest ever achievement.

Sônia Guajajara – Minister of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil

Analysis by Michael König, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Strategy and Innovation, WU Executive Academy

Perhaps no-one has stood this year with more absolute conviction this year than Sonia Guajajara. Born into a poor, illiterate Brazilian family, Sonia fought her way and flourished against all adversity. Succeeding despite the odds, she went to university and became a renowned ambassador against gender and racial discrimination, condemning the deliberate extinction of indigenous peoples worldwide. She is a courageous leader, fighting for the survival of the Amazon rain forest and its lush ecosystem, at the forefront of worldwide protests.

We all can learn from her that sustainability, climate change and deep humanity are not only buzzwords or superficial fig leaves – they are for real, and the essence and foundation if we want to outlive the damage to the planet created by ourselves.

Entrepreneurs can learn a lot from her vigour, zeal, and bravery, standing up for the right purpose. The whole world was listening when Sonia Guajajara delivered her speech at COP26, pressing global leaders to involve indigenous peoples in their policies, to reject false solutions for climate change, issuing a stark warning not to fail all humanity, and ultimately all life on Earth. This was one of the most powerful moments in 2022.

Elnaz Rekabi – Iranian Sport Climber

Analysis by Dr Ulrich Leicht-Deobald, Associate Professor in Responsible Leadership at Trinity Business School

Elnaz Rekabi is the Iranian rock climber who refused to wear a hijab during the Asian rock-climbing championship at South Korea. I admire Elnaz Rekabi for her courage. At the same time, her story shows the fragility of leadership: Several days later, back in Iran, Elnaz Rekabi revoked her bold statement, suggesting that her hijab had fell off inadvertently; mostly likely after she and her family had been threatened by the state authorities.

Elnaz Rekabi’s story shows vividly that we are no immortal superheroes, but earthly creatures, highly dependent on the goodwill of others, but entrenched with a potential for greatness.

So there we have six of the most influential, inspiring and admirable leaders of 2022. Special mention also goes to other leaders from this year, including Queen Elizabeth II who celebrated 70 years at the head of the British Monarchy, before sadly passing in September. Also Mahsa Amini, who’s death sparked brave anti-government protests in Iran, and Sarina Weigman who’s empathetic leadership led to England Women’s football team winning their first European Championships.

But what of those leaders whose mistakes are also lessons in leadership? There are plenty to name and shame, including the FIFA President Gianni Infantino, the founder of cryptocurrency firm FTX Sam Bankman-Fried who is set to face 115 years in jail if found guilty of fraud charges, and misogynist troll Andrew Tate who was called out by Greta Thunberg.

But here are four whose actions in 2022 are a masterclass in misleadership.

Vladimir Putin – President of Russia

Dr. Leon Hartwell is a Senior Associate at LSE IDEAS, London School of Economics, and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington D.C.

In stark contrast to Zelenskyy, Putin has stopped listening to anyone who challenges his thinking and he is rapidly becoming more aloof and recluse. He deserves the top spot of the worst leader of 2022. To shelter himself from potential critical voices, Putin was notably absent from a range of international events like the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in September, the 27th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), and he recently cancelled his annual press conference.

The increasingly totalitarian leader now surrounds himself only with yes men (they are largely men), which hinders his decision making, and he punishes descending voices, including children as young as seven who opposed his war in Ukraine.

Leaders, like milk, become sour after they stay on the shelf for too long. Once a leader turns sour, the only way to maintain power is through bribes, intimidation, and violence. Putin’s leadership has reached its expiration date a long time ago, which is why he continues to commit all three crimes (including heinous crimes in Ukraine), thereby setting back Russia, Ukraine, and the immediate region several decades.

Elon Musk – CEO of Twitter

Analysis by Dr. Lohyd Terrier, Professor of Leadership at EHL Hospitality Business School

While the vast majority of academic research and field studies point to the importance of benevolence and empathy in developing effective and sustainable leadership, too many leaders continue to apply old recipes based on exceptions rather than rules. Why hold back when the richest man in the world takes pride in firing nearly half of Twitter’s employees? After all, who would dare say today that Elon Musk is not an efficient businessman? His impact on car transportation and space exploration is unquestionable.

Yes, Elon Musk is a visionary. Yet his communication over the last few months has left a lot to be desired. He recently shot off a tweet asking the community of Twitter users whether or not he should remain at the helm of the company. The overwhelming response speaks volume about the effectiveness of his leadership during 2022.

Leadership begets power; but, as Tolkien pointed out, power can corrupt. We quickly forget that we are fallible when no one dares to remind us of our vulnerabilities. This is one of the direct consequences of this very authoritarian leadership, where expressing a divergent opinion is perilous. Suppose no one questions what you say anymore. In that case, it becomes difficult for everyone, Elon Musk as well as you and I, not to succumb to the sirens of confirmation bias and to end up believing that our opinion is correct… because it’s ours.

The Iranian Government

Analysis by Katleen De Stobbeleir, Professor in Leadership at Vlerick Business School

My award for the worst leader goes to a collective of leaders: the Iranian government. The aggressive repression of protests for women’s rights across the country shocked the entire world. The continued harsh measures and systematic violations of women’s rights – despite new currents within the country – reveal a lack of contextual wisdom and empathy.

When leaders cross boundaries in such extreme ways, we are reminded of Lord Acton’s famous quote ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts completely’. Fortunately, research has also shown that this statement does not necessarily apply to all leaders and that many leaders use their power for doing good. But we do know that power disinhibits leaders and tends to amplify the traits they already had (both the good and the bad ones). By seeking feedback and being open to voice, and by not only surrounding themselves with yes-(wo)men, or by taking a ‘break’ from power positions, leaders can ensure that they do not let their (hunger for) power get the best of them.

Liz Truss – Ex-Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Written by Sankalp Chaturvedi, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Leadership at Imperial College Business School

Liz Truss, the UK’s third female Prime Minister was also the country’s shortest-serving prime minister. If 2022 was a year of uncertainty and turbulence globally, within the UK the maximum uncertainty and chaos created to the economy in just a few weeks were caused by the rushed decisions taken by the ex-prime minister. She seemed to be a leader without a strategic vision or a plan to bring stability. Her vision showed a limited understanding of how markets work, and how delicate the UK’s economy was at that time.

Truss did create a visibly diverse cabinet to appease a fragmented conservative party to enable her limited vision. However, she couldn’t enable her team (especially Kwasi Kwarteng and Suella Braverman), or build trust to stabilize rocky waters. In the process, she quickly lost the confidence of others. It is difficult to see any bright spots in such a brief tenure. Truss caused maximum damage to the economy and her personal network in a limited term.

Many of the great leaders we’ve highlighted have in common their empathy, their focus on their people or teams, their integrity and commitment, and a resilience to best serve others. In contrast, hubris, a lack of transparency, and surrounding yourself with ‘yes men’ is a recipe for leadership disaster.

Maybe some things are predictable after all?



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