The greatest gift of leadership is the ability to create positive impact at scale. It’s a gift, but it’s also a sometimes an overwhelming responsibility and the biggest challenge most leaders face is how to balance the conflicting demands of stakeholders.
Business like life is neither linear nor simply black and white. Navigating the shades requires embracing the many paradoxes of leadership and in my opinion, the biggest paradox of them all is that business is not actually about business, it’s about life.
Karlin Sloan, global leadership expert, says in her book Smarter, Better, Faster: “Those of us in positions of leadership all have moments of wondering “who am I and what am I really contributing to?” All of us, at times, contribute to both good and bad results for ourselves and the world. But when you begin to look for a greater purpose – through social service, mentoring, designing more environmentally friendly products, improving the lifestyles of employees, developing your community, and so on – the meaning of leadership shifts to a more enduring, effective, and fulfilling responsibility. This is not always an easy endeavour, but it is essential.”
Perhaps the reason we battle with this so much is the training and socialisation we go through to get to leadership positions. Business schools are long on economic theory but short on the humanities. The highly competitive corporate world rewards financial value creation not social or natural capital value creation.
So how can leaders live up to this responsibility of creating large scale positive impact? The trick is that it has to be done authentically. Launching a cause marketing campaign because it’s all the rage won’t cut it. Leaders need personal clarity on purpose in order to build it into their businesses. I foresee that in the not too distant future, leadership appointments will include an evaluation of the alignment of one’s personal purpose to that of the organisation.
But sadly we still have some way to go. According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, less than 20% of leaders know what their individual purpose is and even less can actually spell it out. Perhaps we need to wait for enlightened millennials to take over the C-Suite, but I fear that it will then be too late to make the changes the world so desperately needs.
My hope lies in the fact that the business case for purpose has been proven so the smart money will be investing in it. And as we all know, money makes the world go ‘round…