Leadership   //   September 30, 2022

Bookshelf: Tom Goodwin on why there is a leadership crisis

This article is part of the WorkLife Bookshelf series, which features interviews with authors of recently-published, notable books tackling topics relevant to future of work trends.

It’s a nerve-wracking time for business leaders. Everything from the pandemic and its (still painfully present) knock-on effects on businesses, to the current cost-of-living crisis and the return-to-office employee-employer tug-of-war, all continue to fan the flames of uncertainty.

Media expert and author Tom Goodwin believes that for organizations to succeed in the post-Covid-19 era, leaders need to be willing to not just make mistakes, but also celebrate them. His latest book, “Digital Darwinism: Surviving the New Age of Business Disruption,” published in February, is a second edition to his first book on the concept published in 2018. The central premise is that businesses should start from scratch for the most impactful change, rather than building on what they already have.

“I don’t think we realize the power of this moment. We are often waiting for something — permission, a business case, a new technology. The inescapable truth of the business world is that we seem to be using the excuse of faster change as a reason to do nothing,” Goodwin wrote in the conclusion of his book.

WorkLife spoke to the Englishman in New York, to glean his top tips from the 210-page book and his thoughts on trends that will shape the working world in the coming years.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The second version of “Digital Darwinism” feels even more timely than the first, given that the pandemic fallout has forced businesses to change.

We should use moments in time to create something with more intention and strategy, and that’s what’s happened because of the coronavirus crisis. Companies now have permission to ask more difficult existential questions.

In the book, you suggest seven characteristics of company culture, including tacit, durable, invisible and shared. When have you experienced a great company culture? 

Writing the book made me realize that there is a leadership crisis almost at every level. This is certainly true when you consider world politics, but I have noticed it in companies. If I consider the last seven companies I’ve worked for, they have been led by managers rather than leaders. These people are trying to mitigate risk and be a safe pair of hands. Earlier in my career, I worked for Celador, the company that made [TV show] “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,” and I recall a very charismatic leader, CEO Ellis Watson. His weekly team meeting was better than any TV show, and his creative clarity and vision were remarkable. I’ve since seen that sometimes at a team level but less on a company-wide scale.

Can we talk about your conclusion in the book, that there is this paralysis for businesses to not do anything, using the excuse that things are moving too quickly?

The primary emotion I see when I speak to leaders is fear. If you were to wiretap their brains, you’d realize everything they do is to reduce the risk of something going wrong. Most people are trying not to get noticed and trying to survive. They often defer decisions to maintain a level of safety. There are few rewards for doing things differently, but I think we should remove this negativity and celebrate well-intended but catastrophic mistakes. People should be encouraged to do brilliant and simple things — possibly in their spare time — that remove steps out of processes. Every little piece of change should be celebrated.

Do you think now were going to see more big, old giants topple in the next decade than before?

There’s a reason that companies have survived or thrived for 20, 50, 100 or 150 years. And it’s not through luck; it’s because they do a lot of things right. We’ve been through this phase where new technology companies seemed to dominate. Amazon killed Borders, so we assumed that would mean [British retailer] WHSmith was screwed. Because Tesla was selling lots of cars, that meant that Daimler was screwed. Now we realize that these companies were doing a lot of things right and therefore don’t need to transform radically.

What, finally, should businesses be focused on in the coming years?

Everything should be focused on your customers. Be aware of the multidimensional canvas, which a confluence of technologies makes possible. The primary focus always has to be people, though. The businesses thriving in the coming years will be more empathetic and do simple things exceedingly well. It’s important to note that we’re in the middle of all this stuff; we’re starting to make sense of it and beginning to make money from it. The digital world is maturing. But this is the next stage’s start rather than the current cycle’s end.

“Digital Darwinism: Surviving the New Age of Business Disruption” is published by Kogan Page Limited in the U.K. and the U.S.