Navigating and Leading in Turbulent Waters

Navigating and Leading in Turbulent Waters

Navigating and Leading in Turbulent Waters

Part 1 of 3 in a series of reflections from Ambassador Christian Dussey, Director of the GCSP.  

By Ambassador Christian Dussey, Former Director of the GCSP

Ambassador Christian Dussey is now approaching the end of his tenure as Director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. For eight-years, he was faced with both challenges and opportunities This 3-part series is a compilation of his key reflections including: leading and navigating in turbulent waters, the importance of learning, and experiences in leading a non-profit organisations.  


Part 1: Navigating and leading in a turbulent world

We live in a highly interconnected world marked by ongoing, far-reaching transformation. Changes happen both incrementally and abruptly, as we are now witnessing with the COVID-19 pandemic. These challenges affect us on different levels and in multiple domains. Navigating them as a leader at any level, but most certainly as the head of an organisation, is never easy. It requires a specific mind-set, skills and tools. But foremost, as I have found during my tenure at GCSP, it requires an understanding of the following six facets of our contemporary world:

1.   The convergence of three features: the complexity of systems and issues, their strong interdependence and the speed of evolution. The interactions of a multiplicity of actors (traditional and new), and the new tendency to weaponise key aspects of international relations via unilateral sanctions or trade wars, are making the system more unstable and prone to major disruption.

2.   The rise and breadth of geopolitical and security challenges. The range, velocity, interconnectedness and immediacy of these challenges make managing and resolving them difficult. What’s more, today, there is a fragmentation of power and power shifts, receding globalisation and a series of “isms” (protectionism, nationalism, extremism, authoritarianism) that generate mistrust and pose long-term challenges.  New regulations, sanctions, disruption of supply chains, geopolitics in flux have become the norm and can affect organisations and societies in unexpected and dramatic ways.

3.   The vulnerabilities of our societies. Given our dependence on everything from critical infrastructure on earth and in space to our complex supply chains, all of us – societies, organisations and individuals – are vulnerable to massive shocks, as the current global pandemic has demonstrated. The interdependence and complexity of even one system can lead to vulnerabilities that affect all of them. And often lack of trust in authorities as well as international rivalries impede the fast and necessary reactions needed to overcome these challenges collectively.

4.   The unpredictability of brutal change and moments of rupture. The future is not a straight and predictable line. The unexpected is a common thread throughout history. Despite enormous investment in research and analysis, governments and private institutions find it extremely difficult to anticipate precise moments of disruption or breakdown. And with the acceleration of technological advances, strategic surprises will be more frequent than before.

5.   The impact of exponential technologies. Spectacular developments in fields, such as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, neuroscience, and quantum computing will transform profoundly the way we live and interact. The progress will be exponential and generate transformations of unprecedented breadth and depth while few people grasp their full consequences.

6.   The influence of emotions on decision-making. With the spread of social media platforms and the development of alternative realities, emotions have become an important driver of change. Perceptions shape reality more profoundly than before. The velocity of fear that succeeds dramatic events engender hasty decisions without the luxury of sound analysis and decision-making.


What are the implications for individuals and organisations?

1.   The mastery of three competencies is necessary to be successful. Leaders in all fields, from government, diplomacy, the armed forces to the private sector, will only be successful if, besides the mastery of their respective tradecrafts, they have solid technological savviness and foresight, and a firm grasp of the complexity of their environment. A better understanding of the environment is a precondition for collaboration and trust. Likewise, understanding your partners is essential. It breaks silos and helps build bridges, which are key attributes to international problem resolution. In crisis characterised by high stakes and high velocity, leaders’ effectiveness depends on their understanding of the organisations' culture. In the past 30 years, I have had the privilege to work as an intelligence analyst, a general staff officer, a diplomat and today as the head of a not-for-profit institution. All these different organisations have their own DNA. Each one has its own culture, different ways of making decisions, and multiple speeds in its decision-making cycles. Some are slow, unstructured. Some are over-structured and lack the capability to improvise. It is essential for a leader to understand this complex environment and learn from other organisational cultures. It is a sure recipe for successful crisis management.

2.   Anticipation and agility must be a priority. Whether you are leading a multinational company, a Ministry, an international organisation or an NGO, effective leadership requires that you deliver on your current mission, while also transforming your organisation. And this at all times.  Strategic foresight capabilities can help to anticipate and identify opportunities and risks much earlier. But smart and flexible organisational design, staff empowerment and innovative working platforms can provide you and your people the necessary agility to adapt and respond quickly to unexpected events.

3.   Creativity, imagination and resourcefulness are fundamental at the individual, team, and organisational level. Failures of imagination have led to human tragedies, costly miscalculations and blenders. My prior experiences as head of the Swiss Foreign Ministry’s Crisis Management Centre taught me that the most important competence I must have as a leader is not a mastery of interagency or inter-ministerial work, which is necessary – but the ability to spark creativity in a crisis or leadership team. “Thinking outside of the box” cannot be prescribed. Creativity, or imaginative thinking, is often an underrated skill but a powerful asset to have when responding to a challenge or an unexpected situation. Creativity must be trained, supported, and nurtured. It is also an essential ingredient for innovation, which often happens when different disciplines and expertise collide.

4.   We often overestimate our resilience and that of our organisations. The current pandemic has highlighted our various levels of resilience or lack thereof. As shocks and disruptions become more frequent, it’s vital that we all strengthen our resilience through a significant investment in preparedness, not only to accomplish and protect our respective missions, but also to increase mutual trust in our partnerships.

5.   Learning agility is the new “Gold Standard”. It provides the foundation for all of the above. Too often, I hear: “I am too busy to learn!” Professional development is often downplayed as something “nice to have” as if it is a luxury of time. But this is dangerous. It leads to missed opportunities, lack of preparation, and mistakes. Think of it this way - most of us make every effort to keep the software on our smartphones updated. Otherwise, we know we will run into trouble (i.e., security gaps or apps that no longer function). Without question, I maintain that it’s vitally important to update our own internal software – our brain. Frequently. Creatively. And collectively. Leadership in these challenging times requires nothing less.

Ambassador Christian Dussey is the Former Director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) from August 2013 until May 2021.

Prior to this assignment, he served as Swiss Ambassador and Head of the Crisis Management Centre of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). The Centre coordinates the governmental crisis response system during major incidents affecting Swiss citizens abroad (disasters, political upheavals, terror attacks, hostage-taking).