When Wisdom is Put to the Test | An Interview with Angelos Papadimitriou

Leaders worldwide currently face career-defining struggles to invoke wise decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic. From the logistics of medical and food supply chains, to the subtleties of mass communication in a time of crisis, now more than ever, wise leadership is key to sustainable and legitimate organization-building. What happens when an executive steps into a top role in a new industry, or more difficult still, a high-profile crisis?

When it comes to wise decision-making, can our current political leaders, typically governed by short-term electoral cycles, borrow important leanings from their corporate equivalents? Angelos Papadimitriou is a senior leader with almost three decades of experience in the packaging machinery and pharmaceutical industries. In this interview we discover his  tried and tested perspective on wise decision-making, and how it helps him navigate in times of turbulence, ‘seeing the wood for the trees’.

Having experienced one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in Bologna, northern Italy, he talked to us about why wise decision-making is becoming such an important barometer for successful leadership today.

Wisdom Put To The Test Interview Papadimitriou

Wise Decision-Making in Action  - Key Messages Unpacked

1 - Having The Courage Of Conviction

Be clear on your principles: Wise decision-making starts with a principles-based leader. His or her principles are wired in and act as a compass, and this is particularly vital when your decisions are not universally popular. Ethical principles, specifically, will enable you to judge whether stakeholder demands meet your standards (above all, when an organization is set to basic conformity, rather than moral excellence). To establish your walk away point. 

Blend courage, instinct and sophistication: Courage runs through wise decision-making. It is not bought, sold, or taught, it is innate. Courage means bridging the gap between knowing what is right, and having the guts to do it. Over time, an executive should accumulate sufficient sophistication to turn courage into positive action, to overcome rumination and analysis paralysis. S/he must also be alert to the pitfall of over-confidence – reckless driving can create undesirable outcomes.

Think value, not tenure: Take decisions not in view of maximizing your tenure, but maximizing value. This perspective will also fuel your all-important courage: to spark more innovation, freeing you from self-preservation and over-conservatism. (Paradoxically, this may lead to longer tenure). Emphasize doing the right thing over breakneck speed. A clear self-perception will also give you courage. A strong belief that you are of value in more places than your current spot will help you avoid over-identifying with this ‘one shot’ (‘without this I am nothing, and this is all there is for me.’)


2 - Making Sense Of The New

Draw on your experience (but don’t be married to the past): A key element of Amrop’s wise decision-making model is ‘referral to experience’. However, it’s important not to be blindly married to your past or to ideologies that may not wholly fit your new organization. Wisdom means being pragmatic and context driven — as long as your principles remain intact.

Capture existing value: Too many leaders sweep the jewels out with the dust upon entry. What elements of the current business culture and business model are constructive and should be preserved? What do you need to change? What is the right language to communicate that, and who are the right people to be part of it going forward?

Listen and learn before you decide: If you have stepped into a sector that is new for you, you’ll be on a steep learning curve. In this case, it is vital to invest time in listening not just to your top management entourage but to different levels of the organization and customers. Step off the escalator, examine the quantitative and qualitative data. Exercise objectivity and only then, set the ambition.

Exercise multi-dimensional thinking: Wise leadership involves taking multiple stakeholders into account, beyond you or your organization. In terms of metrics, whilst measuring short-term interests and profit is smart, it is not enough. Business health and sustainability are equally critical. Multi-dimensional decision-making implies a quantum of sophistication — a business-intellectual perspective to see you through the moves ahead. It’s about balancing time horizons, stakeholders, value-creation and qualitative metrics. Again, it takes courage.

Avoid false dilemmas, synthesize and crystallize: Leaders have a key responsibility to understand the specific strategic dimensions of value creation, its paradoxes and contradictions. It takes effort, but those who side-step the process risk over-simplification, and false dilemmas. One good output can be hybrid solutions and models. Or more profound answers. Asking whether an executive under investigation should remain in a leadership position, is a false dilemma. A wiser question is: do we trust this person to be in this position, given what we know?

3 - Creating A Healthy Environment

Brace yourself for pushback: The change you are instigating may well create tension in a company that thought it was doing well, perhaps rightfully. You may find people divided between those who think you are crazy, and those who rather agree that your organization has more to express. Proceeding will, again, take courage, carefully selecting and working with the (trusted) people who can make change possible.

Use trust as a key indicator to select (and be selected): In a crisis, the key question is: do you trust certain people to keep their positions or not? Or let them go? You can’t keep people in their posts, and at the same time not trust them. The same applies to you. Top management needs to trust you fully, give you space and support. If not, you’ll be fighting with one arm tied behind your back. A leader is not a martyr.

Design an ‘on-off’ values switch and use the fuseboard: Boards should track organizational performance with an ‘on-off’ switch that integrates values into the review system. This refers to ways of working, ethics, teamwork, and other wise decision-making indicators. On the basis of these switches, does a manager believe an employee is ‘on’ or ‘off’ ? Most are ‘on’ most of the time, but give a chance for ‘off’ behaviors to be signaled. Then comes the tough conversation about whether he or she should stay on the bus.

Back up trust with compliance : Especially in a fast-moving crisis, there’ll be assumptions and allegations. Dial back, get a full briefing from your legal experts and envisage the scenarios. Double up on compliance, cooperate with investigations and create independent mechanisms to ensure ethical operations. Exercise zero tolerance. Even supposedly ethical organizations can have blind spots and there are many ways to ‘window dress’ a lack of ethics, citing a “minor” misdemeanor, or a generally “good employee” (especially a well-connected one). Turn a blind eye to an ethical problem and you give license to the whole organization to do the same. Spot the signals and take immediate action.

Exercise zero tolerance, but don’t pretend you are a judge: In the case of an ethical misdemeanor, you can destroy someone’s reputation by taking them to court, or you can ask them to resign. Wise leaders don’t negotiate the “whats”, they negotiate the “hows”. The task is to ensure that bad behaviors are eradicated from an organization immediately on discovery. Most often this can be done without unnecessarily damaging that person’s reputation. It’s not a leader’s job to punish “bad” people, (as long as they haven’t committed a crime like bribery or sexual abuse), just to free your organization from them.

Check the governance. Is it helping or harming?: Leaders never stand on their own, there’s always governance around them. When you ask yourself, am I and my team doing the right thing? do you find that you are blocked from doing so by governance? So, do you believe you are operating in a framework that supports doing the right thing?

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