Building Sustainable Legacies


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Personal Change Challenges Leaders

I have been in the change agent business for many years. As an organizational psychologist, I have assisted companies in identifying and addressing obstacles to their organizational success. Recently my work has turned towards companies that wish to redefine and broaden their definitions of success. These companies are examining their purpose beyond profits. They have not abandoned the desire to make a profit and they are certainly still committed to delivering financial returns to their shareholders. However, they are looking for ways to succeed financially by pursuing solutions to societal challenges – the wicked problems that I discussed in my April blog. The question that I would ask the formal leaders of these companies is whether they are ready for the personal changes that this journey will require.

This quest for purpose really picked up steam after Larry Fink, the CEO of the global investment management corporation Blackrock, said the following in his annual letter to CEOs: “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.” While his proclamation has been controversial, many have heeded his warning by examining their own companies’ purpose beyond profits. By and large I consider this to be very good news indeed. Our societal challenges necessitate looking for solutions from all corners of our world. However, I fear many in formal positions of leadership are unaware of how the pursuit of purpose beyond profits will affect them personally. As Katrin Muff pointed out in her May blog, only exceptional individuals are able and willing to embrace their own roles as global citizens.

Katrin and I agree that the term “leader” should not be limited to those who are in formal positions of authority. Still, successful company transformations do compel those who fill these roles to undergo personal changes. In my role as an advisor to companies undergoing change, I have observed a remarkable lack of awareness of how the desired transformations will necessitate personal changes in those at the top. My educated guess is that many are completely unaware of the need for personal change and others are unwilling to live with the inevitable discomfort that change always brings.

Change is hard. Indeed, global consultancy Bain and Company reports that only 12% of corporate transformation programs succeed in reaching or exceeding the goals. Furthermore, only 2% achieve their goals when the transformation is focused on sustainability. This low level of success can be attributed to many factors including resistant cultures, shifting priorities and lack of a vision that inspires and engages employees. However, my own experiences, both personal and professional, have led me to conclude that leaders’ resistance to personal change is a major stumbling block to successful organizational transformation. Often leaders of our client companies take the position that everyone and everything can and should change as long as they, themselves, are not affected.

Many powerful individuals come to believe in their own infallibility. They assume, sometimes unconsciously, that they rose to these levels of power because of their superiority. These assumptions concerning how they got where they are may be accurate. Nevertheless, as the game changes, so do the rules for how to play it.

When leaders commit to moving their organizations towards purpose beyond profits, they are very likely to find that to succeed, they must give up some of the power that they have enjoyed. Wicked problems require collaborative solutions. Likewise, leaders are likely to be confronted with world views different from their own cherished beliefs. And all must live with ambiguity that may be foreign to them in roles where they have had complete power to make unilateral judgments and act decisively.

These personal challenges are not easy to confront. Some leaders will be up to the tests while others won’t even try. Katrin wrote about the difficulty of overcoming defense mechanisms that blind us to the need for personal change and cushion us from its discomfort. To illustrate this point, a friend and colleague reminded me a few years ago that a person who wants to quit smoking may still be unwilling to give up cigarettes. So too, leaders who want their organizations to transform may not be willing to take on the personal challenges that will lead to success.

I have experienced this resistance myself when I have slammed into my own defenses. As I have worked collaboratively with colleagues from across the globe, I have become very aware of my own limitations when my world views and power are challenged. I work diligently to push through my discomfort as I realize that I must change personally if I am to become a global citizen. Some days I am up to the challenge and other times I dig in and refuse to budge. Nevertheless, I know that my personal journey to overcome my own defenses is worth the effort. I truly want to contribute to addressing our collective global challenges. And to do so requires me to seek awareness of ways that I must change. I must learn to live with the discomfort that I experience as a result. I take one step at a time. Sometimes I fall back a few steps but overall, I keep moving forward. Gradually I am making progress in my own change journey.

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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


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.


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50+20 normative leadership model meets behavioural economics

I recently spoke at RECOL Switzerland about our vision for responsible leadership and presented our normative model developed as part of the 50+20 Vision:

Globally responsible leadership is built on a leader’s capacity for reflective awareness and contains three roles in which he acts and makes decisions – entrepreneur, leader and statesman.

Interestingly, my presentation was followed by an in-depth analysis by Gerard Fehr, who together with his Nobel-prize winning brother works on ways to apply behavioural economics to the real world.

He gave examples of their existing research to evaluate if and how our ideal leadership vision is reflected in the current realities of leaders. The discussion that followed couldn’t have been more inspiring: Are we really unable to be empathic? Are sanctions really the only way to maintain employee compliance? Is breaking down of cooperation really the norm and not the exception?

The hand-picked, high calibre audience first experienced their own gaps in their behaviour compared to their intention, through a smart real-time survey game operated by Gerard and his lovely assistant, Katharina Kaiser.

The Human Resources, Sustainability, and Compliance Directors of top Swiss firms contributed to a rich and controversial discussion, about the tension between the somewhat sad, actual state of the elements of responsible leadership and its ideal vision.

In a last segment, as Gerhard and I jointly discussed avenues of action and possibility to move towards the envisaged ideal state, we found insightful new options.

In conclusion, I must say that I was delighted to have been part of such a rich and thought-provoking experience and I hope that normative and quantitative research meet again in such inspiring settings.

Thanks to Joanna Hafenmayer Stefanska & RECOL for having orchestrated such a miraculous event!

Learn more about seeing through the jungle of responsible leadership and other relevant initiatives.


Otto Scharmer on a Global Action Leadership School (the “u-school”)

Read this inspirational personal account of one of our key thought leaders of today, Otto Scharmer, and how he is finding courage and will within him to drive towards a dream he has had for a long time. More on Otto’s blog.


Dreaming up the university of the future at the OIKOS Future Lab 2013

90 students from nearly all chapters from around the world met in St Gallen for a two-day session to inquire how to place OIKOS in the future of management education. I was invited as one of a number of thought leaders from around the world to trigger their creative process. What a delightful experience it was!

The other thought leaders were Max Oliva of the HUB Global and Teamlabs, Martin Cadée of The Journey Network and Knowmads, Traian Bruma who created CROS a student-led university in Romania and Rasmus Johnsen teaching philosophy at CBS in Copenhagen. What an amazing assembly of experience and creative vision in the emerging space of the future of management education.

After a first day spent getting together onto the Journey and applying the Impact Canvas, inspired by the Osterwalder Business Model Generation Canvas, to various concrete projects within the OIKOS framework, day two was dedicated to co-creation. OIKOS is the largest sustainability-focused student organization world-wide with chapters on all continents. We facilitated the initial part of the co-creative process of the students which involved painting a picture of the future of the business school in 2 phases.

Phase 1 consisted of a first group of students of drawing together a picture of what such a university could or should look like. Phase 2 consisted of a second team inheriting the drawing and determining what role OIKOS might want to play in such a scenario. The discussions which accompanied the creative painting exercise were both fascinating and revealing. While we typically think that we need to first know what to point, thus starting with a lengthy debate that ends with a few hasty scribbles on a nearly empty page, our first group immediately attempted to visualize each idea they had about the future university on paper without fully understanding what was emerging or what the final picture might be. About half-way through, one part of team 1 who had worked mostly on one side of the drawing explained what they had ended up painting and vice-versa. The team exchanged places and enhanced the designs of their friends. What emerged what a comprehensive picture which shows the future university as an open space embedded in both society and the environment thus showing the larger planetary context, while also showing the journey of an individual student working on his quest (what do I want to do in future) in his own time, working both in the collaborative open space with facilitative professors, business professionals and thought leaders as well as within reflective spaces, moving back and forth between practical experiences in society (hospitals, businesses, etc.), creating their own individual curriculum in the process (see image 1).

Phase 2 started with an immensely grateful new student team who was amazed by the creative piece of art the first team had drawn up for them. Their analysis of the picture opened the debate on what such a future university could be and what role OIKOS might want to play in there. The second team was nearly afraid to destroy the beautiful foundation work of the first team. Again, rather than trying to first finding the solution, they launched in daring to create a huge infinity loop all across the 3 posters indicating that OIKOS could be the connecting enablers supporting the student in her journey from society, the environment and the university and along her individual learning journey. The open space of the university ended up being the crossing over of the two lines which was drawn up into a green heart. The team furthermore highlighted the planetary context the first team had hinted at by filling in a blue background to the entire picture immensely strengthening the message and providing a common space which symbolized the potential of OIKOS as a universal platform of learning (see image 2).

What impressed me most is how effortlessly this creative process went along and how painting thoughts actually helped to develop thinking. We tend to think it works the other way around. We were accompanied by an amazing artist Klaus Elle who provided the visual track (as compared to the sound track) of what was going on. His ability to summarize sessions with one telling image must have seriously inspired us all!


Give your 67 minutes on Mandela Day

Here is a message I received from The B Team and would like to share with all of you. Let’s celebrate the Nelson Mandela International Day together, wherever you are right now!

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July 18 is known around the globe as Mandela Day – a celebration of the wonderful Nelson Mandela, his tireless struggle for human dignity and his lifelong commitment to pursue the greater good. His compassion, moral courage and vision of selfless leadership have been an inspiration to so many of us.

As people everywhere keep Madiba in their thoughts and prayers these days, The B Team, alongside Virgin Unite, is supporting the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in South Africa to honour his extraordinary life and values.

The premise of Mandela Day is a simple one: each and every one of us has the ability to make a positive impact in the lives of others. It doesn’t take much to make every day a Mandela Day: if we were all to give just 67 minutes, one minute for every year of Madiba’s fight for human rights and social justice, we can make a huge difference.

I for my part, will spend 67 minutes on July 18th mentoring a group of young entrepreneurs. But there is so much that we all can do. Visit www.mandeladay.com for further inspiration. You can make your pledge to give your 67 minutes at http://www.pledge4mandeladay.org/.

Of course there are other ways in which you can help. If you wish to make a donation from anywhere in the world, to honour Nelson Mandela’s legacy, please visit: www.virginmoneygiving.com/nelsonmandela.

Alternatively, from UK mobiles, you can also text MANDELA to 70107 to make a £5 donation. If you are in the US, text MANDELA to 20222 and $10 will be added to your mobile phone bill or deducted from your prepaid balance.

All funds donated via text messaging, and all funds collected by Virgin Unite through the website will go directly to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. Inaugurated by Nelson Mandela in 2004, the Centre focuses on three areas of work: the Life and Time of Nelson Mandela, Dialogue for Social Justice and Nelson Mandela International Day. For more information, please visit www.nelsonmandela.org.

Join The B Team and Virgin Unite to support the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in honouring this exceptional leader, elder and wonderful human being. Make sure to give your 67 minutes on Mandela Day, or make a donation today.

Enkosi kakhulu! Baie Dankie! Thank you!

Richard Branson
Co-Chair, The B Team