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When the historians of the future try to choose one phrase to characterise the UK government’s approach to the Covid-19 pandemic, it could be this: the era of the U-turn.

For months now, the PM Boris Johnson has been constantly derided for changing his mind about coronavirus policy at the last minute, long after the optimum moment for course correction appears to have passed.

Without wading into that particular argument, I want to offer up a defence for the much-derided handbrake turn.

Naturally, if you’re a business leader or manager, finding yourself in a position where you have to consider turning a previous decision on its head is likely to be an unwelcome development. The need for a massive pivot suggests that something, somewhere, has gone significantly off-track.

But let’s not make the mistake of denouncing all U-turn decisions as the sign of weakness or poor judgement. In fact, I believe that those who want to demonstrate great leadership skills should learn not to fear the U-turn, for three key reasons.

Agility is a positive leadership trait

Yes, it’s good for businesses to have a clear roadmap to achieving their objectives and some would argue that agility should go hand in hand with resilience. After all, what company doesn’t take a little buffeting while sailing the stormy seas of business? If we all changed tack at the first sight of storm clouds, very few of us would reach our ultimate destination.

But the ability to digest new information, to understand that a previous plan of action will no longer serve the best interests of the business, is a key skill that we should want to see in our leaders. After all, those who refuse to accept that the wind has changed will only lead us into the eye of the storm.

Changing your mind shows you’re listening

The U-turns that really infuriate people tend to be the ones that “should have been obvious”; with everyone from the janitor to the C-suite claiming to have seen it coming.

That’s why listening is such an important element of being a successful leader. Yes, you’re in charge and you ultimately make the call. But picking up on the concerns and observations of your employees provides useful information from other areas of the business, which might otherwise not have informed your decision making

Problem solving is a hugely important part of managing well and making those difficult decisions gets a whole lot easier when you can see the big picture. That’s why calling on the eyes and ears of your organisation – your staff – for input not only gives you the vital information you need to make smart choices, it also boosts engagement from the people who feel you’ve listened and responded accordingly.

The boss doesn’t always know best

This can be a tough one for business leaders and managers to swallow, but it’s true. In addition to canvassing the views of the people on the ground, sometimes you’ll need to call on expertise that just isn’t in your skill set.

The last year has given us a perfect example of this. Politicians don’t know anything about pandemics, so scientists and health professionals have become indispensable members of the government’s team.

Many business stars, from Richard Branson to Jack Ma, have made some comment along the lines that it’s best to hire people who are smarter than you. It’s definitely sensible to get experts on your team, but then you need to actually listen to them. If listening to them means having to vastly rethink your original strategy, what are you going to do? Take the advice you’re paying them for, even if the result is an uncomfortable U-turn, or stick to your original plan and lead your business into calamity?

Making a U-turn essentially means admitting that your initial decision was wrong, in the current context. It doesn’t mean that it was never the right decision, just that it isn’t right anymore. Decisiveness is important for leaders, but humility and a willingness to leave your ego at the door should also be part of the leadership tool kit.

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Leadership & management is about more than just decision-making. The best business leaders arm themselves with the information they need to make good decisions. Whether it’s meetings, interviews or team dynamics, there’s always something to learn, and somewhere to improve.

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Mark Fryer

20th January 2021