Walpole Editorial | Grace Under Fire: Luxury leadership in troubled times

Walpole announces its new star columnist, Peter Howarth, editor, content expert and CEO of luxury creative agency, Show Media. Over the coming weeks, Peter will talk to luxury’s leaders about their approach to the crisis, and share his insights into what successful leadership looks like in these extraordinary times.

Chesley Sullenberger and Giorgio Armani

In the first in the series, Peter Howarth shares his thoughts about ‘situational awareness’, learns a useful lesson from an airline pilot about ‘dual focus’ and talks to Giorgio Armani about the value of prompt action and why Covd-19 could change everything for luxury.

Recently, there was an excellent column in The Sunday Times by Matthew Syed . Syed is one of those “smart thinkers”, like Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Kahneman, who looks at why we behave the way that we do in certain situations: a writer serving up popular philosophy and psychology with a dose of economics on the side. His first book, Black Box Thinking, was a fascinating look at how we do or do not learn from our mistakes, and contrasted the aviation industry – where the information about accidents is universally and transparently shared among global airlines in order to improve safety and avoid a recurrence – and other fields, notably medicine, where there is often a culture of obfuscation when things go wrong.

Syed’s column explained how, when faced with a crisis, it is human nature to narrow our perspective and focus on the granular problem confronting us. This has a use, of course, as it enables us to deal with the immediate challenge at hand. However, it can also be a problem in itself, as we may be required to think in a different, wider way to effectively solve the issue. Syed cites the example of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who, when he lost all power after hitting a flock of Canada geese just after take-off from LaGuardia airport, had to engage twin methods of thinking to achieve a successful outcome. On the one hand, he had to pilot the plane to keep it flying, but on the other, he had to have enough perspective to see that he couldn’t make it back to any airport landing strip nearby, and find an alternative. That led him to the Hudson River where he famously brought his plane safely down.

Syed makes the point that in the current health emergency, the tendency is to focus entirely on the immediate. But we may need to force ourselves to do something else so as to cope more effectively. The ability to step back and look at the wider picture is something called “situational awareness”. He explains, “It requires a ‘dual focus’: making sure the aeroplane is being handled, while simultaneously making strategic judgements.” And this could be critical now.

As a small business owner myself, like many of you, I am sure, I have spent the last few weeks fretting about the important issues of how to pay suppliers, how to pay staff, how to cover costs and overheads and how to get paid by people who, in facing the same situation are understandably reluctant to part with cash. All the while, also dealing with alarming news reports, the necessity of relocating my people to homeworking and the technological challenges that that presents, and generally seeing nearly 20-years-worth of work thrown up in the air with no indication of where it might land.

In this situation it is easy to feel overwhelmed. But what Syed’s column made me realise was that the fog of all of this is not helping and that what is required now is to really understand that how we behave in a situation like this will define how we come out of it, and in the case of luxury brands, where reputation is key, critically, how we are perceived.

It may well be that the ability to think both narrow and wide simultaneously is a quality that defines good leadership. And if we are in a position of being leaders at the moment, then we would do well to understand this.

This all came into focus when I was talking to one of the team members at Armani in Italy. I have many Italian clients and speaking to them over the past few weeks about the unfolding nightmare in their country has been eye-opening. It was during a conversation with a colleague at Armani – which is now locked down for a fifth week in Milan – that she said, without any shade of irony, that she felt Giorgio Armani had proved himself a true hero. As she is someone not given to hyperbole or clichés, I asked her what she meant. She explained that he had responded to the crisis in a way that she felt, as an employee and as an Italian, showed proper leadership.

She said that at a very early stage, with clarity and decisiveness, Armani did several things that were not immediately required by the state and for which he received some criticism, with people claiming he was overreacting. In short: in January he stopped all non-essential travel for his teams to and from China; in February he decided to hold his womenswear fashion show in Milan behind closed doors and broadcast it online; he closed his offices and plants in northern Italy; he postponed international events; he closed his stores, restaurants and hotels – first in Italy, and then in Europe and other countries; he sent his staff home to work “smartly” and remotely.

These were the actions of somebody dealing with the immediate situation – looking at how to keep the plane flying. But since then, he has behaved like a man looking at the bigger picture, donating two million euros to Italian hospitals in Milan, Rome, Bergamo, Piacenza and Versilia, and to the National Civil Protection Department, which is running the response to the health crisis. Late last month, he gave over production in all Armani Group Italian manufacturing plants to making single-use medical overalls.

I contacted Giorgio Armani to ask him about how he felt about things at the moment and to see if he could give me some insight into his thinking, as it seemed that he was often anticipating the official response in the actions he was taking. I started by telling him one of his team had called him a hero.

I am no hero,” he said. “The heroes are the medical staff and health workers in our country, and the world, who are coping with enormous strain. It has really affected me to see their selfless commitment, to see their tears, shed not for themselves, but for all of us. All of them – from the stretcher bearers, to the nurses, from the general practitioners to the specialist consultants – all of them, regardless of their roles, are showing the best of humanity, and are an example to us all.”

I said that he sounded genuinely affected by this. “I believe that this has stirred deep feelings in me,” he explained. “Before I became a designer, I studied medicine and was embarking on a path to be one of them. Now I am just trying to play my part.”

Why, I wondered, had he reacted so quickly to the unfolding crisis? “The health and wellbeing of my employees and customers has always been, and will continue to be my priority,” he said. “We have been following, and often anticipating, the measures being adopted in all countries.

The Italians are a proud and patriotic people, with a rich sense of their culture and history, and Giorgio Armani is no exception. He talked of how “Italians are proving to be truly resilient, and we are staying inside, sticking to the rules… and singing from our balconies to lift everyone’s spirits.” But there is no doubt that the designer sees this as a very dark time and the road ahead as uncertain and unpredictable, as things are changing so quickly. One glimmer of hope, though, came as he mentioned in passing that his stores were opening in China again. He didn’t say whether this counted as any form of light at the end of the tunnel – he really was simply concerned about the present – but he did say that his aim was to help his staff and customers, wherever possible, to feel that the mechanics of living and working can struggle on, so that they feel that we will come through this crisis.

And how does he imagine the post-virus world from a fashion industry point of view? “We could really learn from this experience. The fashion industry might well re-examine its priorities. I have long believed that there is a need to slow down, to show less product and to return to considering the requests and needs of customers. I therefore hope we might arrive at a system that is truer in human terms.

If that is the case, I wondered whether he thought there might also be a reassessment of the idea of luxury itself? “Very possibly. We are now all realising how the freedom to walk in the street and to travel the world is a true luxury, as is the ability to visit our friends and see our loved ones,” he said. “And so when this is all over, perhaps we will appreciate the simple things in life more. But maybe we will also appreciate the things that give us pleasure more, too – things of beauty that are well-made, aesthetically pleasing and designed to last? Perhaps we will consume things more thoughtfully, with more consideration? I certainly hope so.

My take on this is that in the depth of Italy’s despair, Giorgio Armani is trying to keep his teams and customers calm and motivated, while taking steps to help combat the real threat. He is looking at preserving some degree of normalcy in a highly abnormal situation, thus maintaining a foundation within his business, and for his brand, that means it will have a chance of recovery, as the world recovers.”

In this sense, he is behaving like pilot Sullenberger – dealing with the immediate responsibility of flying the plane while thinking about where it could land.

I wonder whether in Giorgio Armani’s case, his “situational awareness” and “dual focus” has something to do with his own experience. “I was a very young boy during the Second World War and I remember the fear that we were gripped by then,” he explained. “However, this battle is different – we are fighting an unknown enemy and so the situation is much more uncertain.”

I’ve known Giorgio Armani for nearly three decades and in that time I’ve spoken to him about his life on many occasions. One story he told me years ago that I found deeply shocking was that after the Second World War, he and some of his young friends were out playing in the streets one day with an unexploded shell. It went off and tragically killed the boy next to him. It also burnt Armani from head to toe. He temporarily lost his sight and spent a month in hospital during which he was placed in a vat of alcohol to sooth his burns. To this day he can show you the mark on his ankle where a buckle from his sandal was seared into his flesh.

Experiences like this are difficult to imagine for many of us, but for those who have lived through and survived other serious crises, there is perhaps an ability to recognise a true one when it shows itself. And also the knowledge, born of personal experience, that crises are, indeed, survivable. This sort of knowledge and experience is something that we can all learn from.

So, with this in mind, it might be helpful for us all to take a deep breath and ask ourselves how can we behave at this time to ensure the best possible outcome – not just in terms of what we can do immediately and pragmatically to help our businesses survive, but also with regard to how we can show leadership and vision. By practising “situational awareness”, we could find the answer to a very important question: what kind of business do we want to have at the end of all this?

Peter Howarth is the CEO of Show Media, a creative agency with a client list of many of the world’s best-known luxury brands. @petershowmedia 

You can read Matthew Syed’s column here.

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