A visionary leader can empower people to think differently in 2013
By Lindsay Levin
Prevailing cultures in business are not beyond our influence, but an accumulation of individual choices that we can change
The debate over ethics, fairness and resource-sharing has become increasingly urgent in recent years. Business leaders are having to answer difficult questions – from the global to the personal – about purpose and values, and how these co-exist with profit.
How can growth sit comfortably alongside sustainability? How can organisations embed a sense of what really matters in day-to-day operations? How is this pressure creating opportunities to adapt, innovate and lead?
In 2001, I founded a social enterprise called Leaders' Quest. My goal was to inspire people to ask tough questions like these and to look for answers together.
Over the years, I've worked with some extraordinary leaders, from businesses large and small, and from NGOs. Some are searching for new solutions and trying to foster trust and inclusiveness in their companies and institutions. Some realise that a narrow focus on profit is not enough, and that without a deeper sense of accountability to the communities in which they work, they will find themselves without the legitimacy to operate.
I believe that businesses can choose to play a larger role in shaping the future constructively, contributing to societal wellbeing, and mitigating some of the negative consequences of economic growth. They can learn how to put social purpose at the heart of company identity alongside, not instead of, profit.
Transforming the systems, cultures and behaviours that surround us, is an incredibly daunting challenge. Typically, it requires change at three levels – inner (individual), micro (organisational) and macro (systemic).
The power of experiential learning
Inner transformation is about having our most basic assumptions challenged, and discovering a connection with another person that we never knew existed. It's about seeing ourselves and others in new ways, and acting on these fresh perceptions.
Experience and deep emotional engagement are the keys to this kind of inner shift. I've often found that we can know something at an intellectual level, but until we've been immersed in challenging, inspiring and sometimes uncomfortable experiences, we won't truly understand it.
What enables people to engage at a level beyond the purely cognitive is having time for deep reflection in a "safe" space, where they can open up and share who they are. It sounds simple, but most of the corporate leaders I've worked with aren't used to reflecting on their own leadership in a non-political, non-judgmental environment. Often, when they do get that opportunity, they open up far more deeply than they ever have before.
Embracing vulnerability in this way allows individuals to discover their courage and capacity to change the world around them. It involves letting go of old patterns of behaviour to create new possibilities. The impetus often comes from an insight that may seem far removed from everyday life.
Often the first sign of transformation is when people begin to ask new questions. Take the head of a hi-tech manufacturing company, who, after a week-long experiential programme in India, looked at his product list and asked: "What else can we make, using the knowledge we already have, to improve people's lives in new and creative ways?" He'd spent the week with people from all walks of life: from CEOs and young engineers, to families living in slum communities where they will sacrifice almost anything for a job and the chance to play a part in their own vibrant ecosystem.
The resulting innovations (all of them commercially viable) included low-cost building materials to construct replacement housing for slums, and affordable lightweight prosthetics for people who had lost limbs.
Or take the senior partner of a private equity firm whom I've worked with for years, who described his company's journey thus: "Today, when we're deciding whether to make an investment, the first item on the agenda is: what will be the social and environmental impact of this decision? It used to be at the bottom of the list, our last consideration."
Changing long-held beliefs and acting on this change is doubly difficult if you have to do it on your own. It's easy to compromise – stalling and backsliding when you return to the office to find that nothing has changed. A moment of revelation or epiphany is not enough. To sustain personal transformation, individuals need a supportive network.
Change at both a personal and a micro (organisational) level requires a critical mass of individuals to pull in the same direction. Through my work with senior leadership teams, I've frequently seen this create a culture in which people feel empowered to think and behave differently.
2013: the momentum of change
Our biggest challenge now is to translate stories of business transformation into change at a macro (systemic) level. This also comes back to the power of individual leadership. Systemic change requires leaders and organisations with the vision, courage and capability to pave the way. It calls for people who are prepared to challenge the status quo and truly "show up", with all the vulnerability this entails. In my experience, when a visionary leader does this, they never lack followers, because deep down we all want to be part of something purposeful and worthwhile.
Despite the uncertainty and the disappointment with business that abounds, I am optimistic as we head into 2013. Prevailing cultures are not beyond our influence; they are the accumulation of individual choices and actions. We have created them. We are responsible and we can change them if we want to.
Lindsay Levin is the founder and managing partner of Leaders' Quest, a social enterprise that works with people who want to use their unique influence to create positive change in the world.
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