Building Sustainable Legacies


Leadership vs. Citizenship

Re-defining the word in the 21st century context

Who is a leader in the context of the challenges in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Business leaders, government leaders (speak politicians), non-government activist, social entrepreneurs, parents, or maybe all of them? And how do we define if somebody is a leader? Leaders have long been associated with organizational roles they hold; in a company, the CEO may be a leader, but not an accountant, salesman or marketer. But does this assumption still hold true in times where courageous action and responsible behavior is expected from almost anybody at any level of any type or organization, including at home?

Kathy Miller in her recent blog suggests that leadership entails “seeking solutions to wicked problems most always through collaboration with others”. She also reflected on how few true leaders there are on her horizon. Her definition suggests a much larger field of action of a leader than previously considered. When I went to business school in the early nineties, things were still clear. A leader is in charge of managing his company. Period. Ever the Rio Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012, it has become clear that business is expected to deliver far beyond only satisfying internal needs, including those of employees and shareholders. Having included external stakeholders in selected consultation has become a fashion since the start of this decade. And yet, the SDGs introduced in 2015, take the stakeholder engagement perspective even a step further suggesting that business may need to operate far beyond its current set of stakeholders.

I entirely concur with Kathy’s definition of leadership. Even a traditionally defined leader, a person who holds a top position in an organization, is expected today to not only manage her business, but also to engage with players in a growing ecosystem that represents the trillion dollar business opportunities of engaging in solving burning societal and environmental issues. For this, we need to replace the outdated idea that leadership is attached or connected to a specific role or position. Everybody, in every position and role of an organization, no matter how small, needs to embrace the responsibility to seek solutions to the “wicked problems” as Kathy suggested. Is that realistic or even necessary?

At BSL where I work, we see how demanding self-organization is on individual. Self-organization demands a high degree of personal responsibility and emotional independence to allow the organization to thrive. But that is not a realistic expectation. There are many people who for various reasons do much better in an environment where they can rely on emotional support, political support, and a bit of clarification on priorities from somebody better apt at defining these. We have learned the hard way that personal responsibility is not something that can be expected or necessarily developed in a person who is not open to this. We all have effective defensive systems that prevent change and development. Often for good reasons. So what does that mean?

I suggest that the word leader needs to be reinterpreted. Rather than being reserved to those holding a specific role or position, it should be used for those exceptional individuals who have the capacity, energy and competence to build on a high degree of personal responsibility so that they can not only do their day-job but can find synergies between what they do and what can help solve wicked global problems. Such people can be found everywhere, but – and this is a realization I must admit – they cannot be expected everywhere. They are exceptional human beings and I suggest that they fully embrace their responsibility as global citizens and can hence be considered as the 21st century leaders. Such a shift really means that we have come to consider Leadership as engaged Citizenship. And for this, we certainly need to adjust the way we educate such leaders in business and management schools. Or should they be called citizen-schools in future?

 

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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Where are the Super Power Change Makers?

Since reading Katrin’s March blog on the Superpowers of Change Makers, I have been reflecting on leadership and what it looks like in these tense and polarizing times. I have been asking myself the following questions: Who are the heroic leaders for our times? Where are those superpowered change makers who can lift us out of the pessimism and malaise that leave us exhausted and paralyzed? I am eagerly anticipating Katrin’s book for inspiration as I am failing to find many of these superpowered leaders in my world.

Yet when I view this predicament with a different frame, I realize that perhaps I am asking the wrong questions. Instead of speculating on why more leaders don’t demonstrate these change-making skills, perhaps I should be asking myself how I can acquire these capabilities and inspire and enable others to do the same so that we can all make change. Indeed, Katrin pointed out that superpowers are not inborn traits. The “great man” theory of leadership which contends that leaders are born not made has been debunked repeatedly. With effort and courage, every one of us can become a change maker leader.

The quest to develop the superpowers is not for cowards! Most of us are proud of our strengths. Yet Katrin explains how these strengths can limit us when we take them too far. For example, I take pride in my ability to stand up for my convictions and live by my values. Yet taken to the extreme, the strength of my convictions could lead me down the path of close-mindedness and rigidity. To develop superpowers, I must entertain the potential dark side of my strengths. I must be willing and able to refine how I use my strengths to avoid overdoing it to the detriment of my effectiveness.

One of my coaching clients spoke of the “fully baked leader” recently. He seemed to be suggesting that there is an objective and limited set of skills and capabilities that one must acquire to become a leader. Yet in my opinion “fully baked” leaders do not exist. Those who believe that they have developed a complete set of leadership capabilities and have nothing left to learn, will never become superpower- charged change makers. To become effective change makers, we must commit to ongoing growth and development. We must deny that we can ever become “fully baked.”

Some of us who are not in formal positions of authority may be tempted to avoid the difficult path to developing superpowers. Perhaps we tell ourselves that change making is limited to elected officials, CEOs or others who head up organizations and institutions. I urge you to resist this line of thinking. Leadership is far more than filling a position. We cannot afford to fall into a victim mentality. Instead we must acknowledge that leadership does not require a title and refrain from using a lack of one as an excuse for doing nothing.

Leadership does demand bravery and the willingness to take risks. It necessitates our listening to and valuing diverse perspectives. Leadership entails seeking solutions to wicked problems most always through collaboration with others. It obliges us to always seek balance in how we use our strengths. It requires us to continue to seek development and growth. There will always be one more lesson to learn, one more hurdle to overcome and one more challenge to confront with grace and courage.


Stop making sense!

A special message to the 100 change makers of the Diploma of Sustainable Business of Business School Lausanne and the University of St Gallen IWÖ at the occasion of the first Alumni event in Zurich on April 28-29, 2018. #DASTeamRocks

By Katrin Muff, Co-Director of the Program

 

The early adapters are onboard and solid best practice examples are emerging. We have accomplished much in the past decade on bringing business and its leaders onboard to embrace the challenge to create a sustainable and just world, and to make it their business.

The Rio+20 Conference in July 2012 can be seen as a tipping point for the early adapters in business. More than 5’000 top executives gathered to envision how to scale their efforts towards sustainable development. Failing governments in the previous decade had led to shift the hope to business. With its innovation power and easy access to funding, business became the prime driver for a world “where 9 billion people live well on one planet”, as expressed by one of the business conveners, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, founded 20 years earlier around the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.

What might be the tipping point so that the large crowd of followers will jump on the bandwagon? That is the one billion dollar question we have to address today. And for this, we – the convinced – need to change our attitude and our tone. Our voices were important to wake up, or shake up, the business community. And those who could hear us, did. But now, our voices need to reach those who weren’t buying into our arguments and who still remain skeptical or maybe also preoccupied by other significant other mega trends that shape the world.

The climate debate in the United States has clearly illustrated to what degree it is pointless to try and change somebody’s mind by providing seemingly convincing facts. The strong bi-partisan polarity experienced in the United States as a result of the election of the current President further confirms to what degree the only result of a well-considered argument is a counter-argument. We are challenged to let go of the polarity perspective of “I am right” and “you are wrong”. If anything, such attitudes – which both sides hold – simply amplify the gap to be bridged.

In some ways, we – the converted and convinced – need to acknowledge that we unintentionally do onto those we are trying to convert what we blame them to do to us. To ignore and reject a given point of view as invalid or worse ridiculous. Ever attempt we make to say “listen to this and you will finally understand” is an opportunity lost to create a true dialogue by first establishing a common ground. A common ground that includes both points of view, and doesn’t presume one is righter than the other. Only once we have established this common ground can we then engage in a dialogue where together both parties take the immense risk of exploring new grounds together. The risk is huge as it involves that we may end up in a place that is not the same from where we started, requiring us to enlarge our existing understanding and integrate further perspectives. Hence, broadening our worldview.

Integral theory call this neutral, higher or detached, space an “integrated state”. Such a state implies the ability to hold both one’s own and somebody else’s perspective with equal appreciation and respect. And this is no small challenge and not for the weak hearted. Try it at home or try it at work and you will see, how quickly you will step down from that “integrated state” back into the polarity of arguing that the way you see the world is right.

I challenge you, dear fellow converted change maker, to practice this new muscle in your mind and in your heart: adopt this higher neutral state more and more often, and every time a bit longer and with a bit more ease. It is the single best thing you can do if you want to create a positive impact in this world and contribute towards a better world. I know that you can do it, you have that capacity already built in, you simply need to remember it and train it again. I think that the deteriorating state of the world has thrown us into a polarity state where we could do no better than “knowing better” and preaching, pointing fingers, raising hands, highlighting, raising awareness and alerting others. They heard us, those we could reach we have reached. Now, we need to develop new pathways together with those preoccupied with other priorities on their radar to collaborate towards solutions that make greater sense to more people and institutions and that embrace more perspectives. By including opposing thoughts and ideas, better ideas and solutions will emerge. Collaborative processes have long demonstrated that – now let’s go the extra mind and embrace a new mindset, that of the integrator.

 

 

Picture credit: https://innovationleadershipforum.org/our-wisdom/mindset-shift/


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Question-based learning

The secret to uncover solutions that leap-frog above and beyond current practices is the ability to ask pertinent questions. Enabling students to ask good questions is the higher purpose of teaching and represents an essential factor of successfully educating leaders to embrace problems we don’t yet know and come up with solutions that don’t yet exist based on technologies that have not yet been invented. An intended side effect of question-based learning is the increase in a student’s ability to hold the tension of not knowing answers and the ability to live with half-truths, partial answers without shying away from courageously taking a step in what appears to be the right direction given what is known at that time. Acting – reflecting – correcting – and acting again will be the future dance of our leaders. It may be called “stumbling forward”[1], a not so elegant yet courageous engagement towards the world.

The key benefit of question-based learning is the development of liberal learning. The 2011 Carnegie Foundation report on undergraduate business education in the United States demands from business education an integration with liberal learning, in order for students to:

a)       Make sense of the world and their place in it,

b)       Prepare students to use knowledge and skills as means toward responsible engagement with the world, and

c)       Instill students a sense of responsibility for the Common Good, guided by commitment & values.

This is achieved by a) analytical thinking, b) multiple framing, c) reflective exploration of meaning, and d) practical reasoning.

Reflection and awareness  in a world becoming more complex, more unpredictable, more challenging, means getting rid of unilateral thinking, conventional ideology, and reductionist vision of the raison d’être of the firm. – Philippe de Woot

Un-covering assumptions that shape the way we look at the world is a critical step to be able to start forming one’s own opinion about what feels right. Another element of this approach is the inherent possibility to render conscious the many currently undeclared assumptions of the oppressing current economic thinking, opening the opportunity to discuss alternative avenues. Some of these assumptions are:

  • Growth and consumerism as the unquestioned answer to economic downturns and crises since the 1960s. Despite that fact that growth has driven us to a state in which we use 1.5 planets to cover our current needs.
  • The contribution of business to society is measured by the return on shareholder equity limiting the purpose of business to maximizing shareholder value,
  • For the longest time, goods of Mother Nature have been free of charge (fish stock, forests, water, commodities, etc.) with capital only being required for the exploitation and often the destruction of these resources. Governments of emerging countries have started to lease or sell entire regions (valleys, glaciers, frost land) to companies to exploit the inherent natural resources that often took millennia to develop.


[1] This term was developed by Katrin Muff in the case study of Business School Lausanne with Prof. Dr. J.B. Kassarjian of Babson College (2008-2010).


We often question the impact of research conducted in universities – here is some good news!

Much has been written and much more has been discussed about the lack of impact of social sciences. Here is an outstanding article of how the “Professor Divide at American Universities” can be fixed. The authors make a valid case for a Teaching-Intensive Tenure Track. If you are in education or care about education, this is a must read!

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2015/04/10/professor-divide-at-american-universities/


What if organizations evolved like people?

Based on Frederic Laloux’s inspiring book Reinventing Organizations, Peter Green has created a most enlightening visual arts video both summarizing Laloux’s work and translating it into a lesson of “Lean and Agile Adoption”.

If you are a general manager, HR manager, a team leader, business student, young entrepreneur, start-up wizzkid, this video will inspire you to consider different ways of organizating for success. I am so curious to hear what you think of the video and what concrete action you are inspired to do! Let me know please!

https://vimeo.com/121517508


There is hope – alternatives to cloning Paul Polman!

I am not the only one to have suggested that if we want to save the (corporate) world, we have no choice but to clone Paul Polman. As a matter of fact, this is one of the comments Kate Robertson (Co-founder of One Young World), who received a Dr. Honoris Causa from BSL along with Paul, made to Paul and me on Saturday. The idea of cloning Paul Polman has two elements:

  • First, it is a great compliment to Paul who has in the past 4 years risen to be recognized as the most admired “poster boy” of corporate sustainability – a direct result of his relentless drive in not only transforming Unilever but also be co-initiating a long list of coalitions both in front and behind the scenes in a great many domains that were traditionally considered beyond reach for a CEO.
  • And second, it expresses a certain frustration if not desperation of many observers that there are not many in these influential positions who define their responsibility in such a way that what they do truly serve society and the planet while – of course – ensuring the continued success of the organization they are leading.

BSL Swiss Sustainability Hub Forum

Reflecting back on our big BSL day last Saturday, 20th September, I cannot but help realize that our two big events converged into something bigger. Paul Polman was a part of both events in a significant way – maybe this was part of the magic (more here):

  • The Swiss Sustainability Hub: the kick-off session to set up a Coalition to bring Switzerland to assume a leading role in the sustainability movement (short for: all people living well and within the limits of the planet)
  • The annual BSL Graduation with more than 500 participants from more than 40 countries

Mark Drewell, outgoing CEO of GRLI and one of our BSL Academic Advisory Board members, shared his impression of the event as follows: “the change of energy from previous years was palpable. You have now accomplished the shift at BSL – the community is really there and there is a powerful sense that there is not only willingness and desire to contribute to this new world we need, but also competencies, determination and real action.

And indeed, as I observed our graduates receive their diplomas, proudly spending a moment with their classmates and continuing the bond they started to build during their studies, I sense more determination, clarity, courage and passion to find a way to contribute to this world than I have ever picked up before (and it is not that we have lacked high-spirited students in previous years!). Bruno Oberli, the Director of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) commented on it during the Swiss Sustainability Hub panel discussion. We had our audience vote on who should drive the launch of the Swiss Sustainability Hub, government or business, and just about everybody broke the voting rule by holding up both options. Bruno laughed and said: “If you are able to shift beyond either/or to a new paradigm of both/and that easily, then we really don’t have anything to worry about as you understand the key element of what we need in future: a pragmatically new way of considering our options!”

A big part of this sense was also how smoothly and collaboratively our BSL team worked for, during and after this big event. Despite perfect preparations, events like this always require many miracles behind the scene dealing with changes, emergencies, adapting what was planned to the emergent reality. There is nobody I would like to rather work with than the BSL team consisting of Aurea, David, Denitsa, Katarzyna, Mary, Massimo, Olivier, Teresa and Yasmina. If everybody assumes their place and space with the same sense of service, dedication, passion for the common good and spirit of collaboration as our team, then maybe there are alternatives to cloning Paul Polman.

If the BSL team and our graduates have this sense of purpose, then we know that it is possible to create environments that stimulate such alignment of purpose, competency and cooperation. We all know that there are many many teams and individuals who are truly connected to an inner sense of purpose in many places around the world. And maybe rather than waiting for cloning technology to get up to speed, we  simply need to trust in the human capacity and in the emerging leadership that is happening across so many organizations at so many levels. What we can do in the meantime is getting better in building the right environments and capacities to speed this up. Educational institutions are an obvious starting place AND any other organization that has people showing up for work. This reminds me of what Mischa Liatowitsch, who graduated on Saturday from our MBA program, said during his studies (see short 1 minute video here).