As lockdown eases, we wanted to contemplate what progress looks like for leaders right now. In particular, how we balance progress at the individual and corporate level with the wider good. In other words, how can our individual or corporate progress help others, rather than come at their expense?
Joining the discussion were leaders from consultancy, marketing, wellbeing, HR, social entrepreneurship, and advertising.
To explore ‘progress’ we began by contemplating Hillel the Elder’s 2,000-year-old maxim:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
And in only being for myself, what am ‘I’?
And if not now, when?”
As the conversation developed, three main themes emerged.
There is no ‘I’ without ‘we’ – does that ideal always hold up when we’re considering the financials?
Participants agreed no one exists in a vacuum. For obvious reasons, as individuals, we can’t function without communities or infrastructure, or as leaders, without teams or clients. One social entrepreneur leader reflected on the cultural values that had shaped her.
‘I grew up in Tanzania, where we were guided by the principle: “I am because we are.” In other words, you are standing on the shoulders of those who came before. I am me, but there is a village behind me. I don’t do things for myself, there is always a wider impact on others and the natural world.’
Most agreed that a ‘we are all connected’ ethic, particularly in regard to climate change, has entered business discourse in recent years – and more recently in regard to the pandemic and Black Lives Matter. However, there was some cynicism about whether the real motive for adopting this ethic was to win business rather than reflecting deeper corporate values.
Can we move from a ‘doing-led’ model of leadership to a ‘being-led’ model?
There was a general sense that business is driven by frenetic, and often thoughtless ‘doing’ activity, which can be reactive, counterproductive, and unnecessarily stressful. An ex-CEO of a global marketing business turned consultant reflected:
‘My natural pre-disposition is to push the benchmark higher. I’m never satisfied. But I’m now trying to become more aware of how I do things, because I recognise that’s not healthy.’
A recent senior leader in a global management consultancy, and now author and speaker:
‘We are biased toward doing and action, not thinking. We are addicted to the accelerator in a business context. And that addiction is lauded and lionised. We get plaudits for getting busier and busier, but is it making us happier?’
While ‘being’-based leadership, if we can call it that, was thought by some to be an ideal, others found it challenging in reality. An ex-chair of a marketing group recently founded a wellbeing business that he wanted to be more purposeful. However, rather than ‘chasing an unobtainable profit number’, he now found himself ‘chasing an unobtainable social impact’ metric, with the result that,
‘In trying to do what I believe in I’m having to use all the dark arts that I’ve used before. There’s a big dance of humility… I wondered whether I’d swapped one set of expectations for another, albeit more sustainable one…’
Lockdown had enforced a more reflective leadership mode for many. For example, this perspective from a leader in advertising:
‘This enforced change has meant that I don’t have to take 2 kids to school at 7am and I’m sleeping more and I’m looking at the birds on the trees, and all these amazing things are happening… What do I want keep time for when things do start ramping up again? I can’t answer… It’s what my company wants for me, it’s what my schools want for my kids… It’s going to be quite a challenge.’
Depending on how it’s managed, crisis can lead to either breakdown or opportunity
Drilling deeper into the current pandemic, there was a recognition that the culture of senior leadership needs to adapt in order to respond to current challenges. This from a management consultant perspective:
‘We are of a generation that are now in senior leadership roles. And we have been groomed towards execution, perfection and success, and that’s what rewards us financially. And now the agile, lean, disruptive world is going to need to embrace failure, to be quick and rapid. The leaders of today don’t have the experience of failure is good. We don’t have the experience of how to coach newer leaders in what they need for today’s world.’
There was wide agreement that success and failure are intertwined. While this notion has seemingly been embraced by some organisations who encourage employees to ‘fail fast’, almost everyone had experienced this as a hollow messaging. Most saliently, from an ex-HR director’s perspective:
‘They all used to wind up in my office. Messed up. The senior level attitude was very much, “Performance manage them, get rid of them!”. That was the reality. I’ve never experienced celebrating failure, despite all the encouraging words.’
Several participants had experienced burnout and breakdown though. For example, one former board member of large business:
‘5 of us went off work with medically diagnosed stress. Principally because of the behaviour of the CEO. Rather than listening to the issues we were raising, the owners of the business backed the CEO.’
Tragically, breakdown was the end of the road for some.
‘I have three friends, all male, whose bodies and minds could not take it anymore. But they hadn’t ever found the language to realise that. And now they’re all gardening – literally. It’s a waste.’
However, breakdown was also seen as an opportunity to throw off old assumptions and see the way forward with greater clarity.
‘I considered myself as happy and lucky and successful, and then boom. The question was, “Is it me who’s going nuts, or is it the system?”’
While initiatives such as ‘yoga classes and fruit at the desk’ were seen as well-meaning attempts to support corporate wellbeing, they were seen by some as,
‘ …fundamentally not addressing everything that we’ve been discussing. Such as, what is the purpose of business?… It has to be around pivoting business away from this downward spiral of workaholism and people frying the planet, to tapping into human ingenuity. Entrepreneurism has boomed over the last year, driven by the need to adapt. How can we extrapolate that to big challenges such as climate change, and make people happier at the same time?’
In terms of progress, this last question is powerful. How can we address the huge challenges of the day, and make people happier at the same time? One way not to do it is to ignore what is unavoidably true. Time and again, on a social and organisational level, we fail to understand – or wilfully ignore – the systemic forces that we both contribute to, and are subject to. When people and systems break as a result, we tend to look for temporary fixes, rather than grasp the essential learnings on offer, and harness them for innovation.
In the corporate context, listening to truth often means having to examine cherished assumptions, vested interests, confront deep unspoken contracts, and challenge power dynamics. These structures can be extraordinarily well defended. But these defences often suck up precious resources, such as time, energy and money.
Truth is, of course, subjective. Perhaps we can rest on the idea that while we don’t always know what the truth is, we often do know when we’re avoiding it. And that thing that we’re avoiding is gold dust. That truth that is being avoided because it is difficult, is also the crowbar that can prise open persistent obstacles, and the torchlight that can pick out opportunities in a thicket of seeming dead ends.
The psychologist Carl Jung noted, ‘We should not pretend to understand the world only by the intellect’ because ‘The judgement of the intellect is only part of the truth.’
Another way of putting that might be, some of the truth lies in the intellect-driven, conscious realm of, what we refer to here as the Whole Environment, while the remainder lies in the unconscious, emotional realm that we find difficult to grasp intellectually. This is where defences and other obstacles reside. To work productively with obstacles, we have to engage with truth. Whether grappling with social, corporate, or individual challenges, that engagement is often uncomfortable, but always essential.
The philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche put it in more uncompromising terms: ‘Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.’ If progress is to be long-lasting, substantial, and to the benefit of all, it needs to be powered by truth, not illusions.
In line with that thought, the theme for our July Leadership Forum will be ‘truth.’
Tom Cotton Founder, Mind Environment 18th June, 2021