In his book “Lift as you rise”, Bonang Mohale describes leadership as ‘creating movement and influence’. This definition is resonant with Conscious Leadership, one of four tenets of a conscious business design, which, contrary to popular belief, is proven to deliver vastly superior financial returns (see the Firms of Endearment Studies). The other tenets of a conscious approach are higher purpose, wide stakeholder orientation and conscious culture / values.
Leadership, I believe, matters a great deal. The quality of our leaders affects the quality of our lives and of our families, of our communities, our country, and ultimately, of our planet. Each day, leaders touch numerous natural systems and millions of people through their choices and actions. The calling of leadership is serious business. And we can see that reflected in the year on year results of the Edelman Trust Barometer. 92% of respondents in the 2020 barometer believe that leaders must stand up and be counted, speaking out on issues that affect us all and not just on issues of company performance, and not waiting for governments to lead us. 75% of respondents believe that business can make money and improve society. Employers are expected to have a big idea for the company, a social aspiration, a larger purpose that employees can attach to and feel strongly about. This is the same purpose just mentioned above in the conscious capitalist approach, the one that sees companies outperforming their peers by large margins. Purpose just keeps popping up.
Dan Coyle’s extensive assimilation of research on highly successful groups illustrates that groups able to creatively problem-solve and innovate are marked out by their commitment to a higher purpose, to building psychological safety and to the practice of being vulnerable. Being vulnerable allows the group to transition to being invulnerable, or anti-fragile as Nassim Taleb might call it, a state of thriving through change and uncertainty. The trio of safety, vulnerability and purpose transforms collections of clever individuals to groups that achieve remarkable things.
I sit face-to-face with leaders and managers, one on one and in groups, almost daily. While a share of leaders remain myopic about the role of purpose (believing making money is the only purpose) and the full intra and extra-organisation impact of their decisions, a great many leaders feel the privilege and responsibility of getting leadership ‘right’. It is a big job to deliver financial wealth and sustainability, people wellness and to solve the world’s most pressing challenges, or at least not contribute to making them worse. I also see a lot of humans not wanting to fail or to disappoint, but rather to be perfect. Amidst growing complexity, connectedness, awareness and competition, a sense of anxiety is stirring. Leaders want to achieve, to exceed expectations and to be rewarded and remembered for that.
For decades leadership development was focused on imperfections. Our models, taken from clinical practice and the treatment of illness, aimed to fix what was broken. And here’s a most interesting thing – what discerns the leaders I have worked with and admire most, for the way they run financially healthy, gregarious and co-operative businesses, for their genuine care about people, and their articulation of a larger purpose through their operations, what discerns them is not perfection. What I observe is leaders increasingly willing to be vulnerable, to be honest and say “I don’t know the answer”, to listen to answers from all kinds of people, to be challenged, to take a risk and be wrong, to admit they do not have all the detail or the assurances that confer comfort. These leaders are not ‘perfect’ nor do they pretend to be. It is almost as if the more they accept their imperfections, the closer they get to creating the real influence and movement that Mohale defines as true leadership. Their modus operandi is to look for strengths and to build teams around combinations of diverse, individual strengths. Teams where people are aware of and can leverage their strengths experience higher performance and engagement.
Indeed, the evidence for focusing on strengths, rather trying to panel beat weaknesses or aiming for the impossible ‘being good at everything’, is astounding. Research shows that growth potential in areas of strength is greater than in areas of weakness. We can work from the assumption that humans have natural proclivities or preferred ways of making an impact, and if we know more about them, we can build our skills in those areas, and then apply those skills as strengths. No one ‘perfect’ person can be expected to bring everything to the table.
But leaders can bring these questions to the table: what is the wider impact of the work that we do? How best can we solve the challenges at our feet? Who else but leadership would ask: What is the larger reason for our business to exist? There is a way to describe leaders who exercise this ability – we talk of them as being high on a Spiritual Quotient. SQ is an excellent addition to IQ and EQ.
Imperfect, but candid and humble leaders flourish in situations where there are fewer knowns, where the future is treated as ‘emergent’. But everyone flourishes when we get better at addressing the question of the impact we have on other people, on our natural systems, and on our world.
“The world has an infinite supply of interesting problems, it also has a infinite supply of important problems. I would love for us to focus on the latter.”
Andrew Ng, Founder of deeplearning.ai and Coursera