The world is changing faster than the people who lead it. We need sustainability leaders to step up and be the standard bearers of innovation
- Guardian Professional,
We live in a world that is confronting huge challenges from population growth to resource shortages and climate change. Will technology save us? It could, but equally needed and less regarded is whether we have the leadership to deliver solutions while tackling political instability and conflicts of interest.
We need leadership and we need leaders. Leadership means having the institutions and forums for enlightened exchange – processes that enable interests to be balanced, ideas to be shared, and a collective sense of purpose to be cultivated. We need leaders to be the standard bearers and facilitators of innovation, development and exchange – to cultivate the networks and dialogue among stakeholders that will help us move together. And we should not get hung up on top leadership. We need leadership at all levels.
There is an almost infinite number of different ways to lead. The only universal is that it is a relationship business. The question is therefore what kinds of linkages help, and which hinder, the effectiveness of leaders?
In the leadership literature you will find lots of recipes, war stories, and idealistic advice, designed to help leaders pay attention to the right things, but many prove very hard to apply to everyday life. My mission has been to offer a new vision of leadership, combining the latest thinking from evolutionary biology with a deep knowledge and experience of business practice. At the heart of this is an analysis of what it means to be strategic as a leader, and what battles have to be fought out in the mind of the leader.
The message for sustainable business is simple, but challenging. It is what I call the leadership formula: effectiveness comes from being the right person, at the right time and place, doing the right thing. This simple formula has a sting in its tail – the awkward truth that the world changes faster than the people who lead it. If a leader is willing to expose him or herself to unfamiliar stimuli, they can discover a new world. This can create genuine breaks with the past and an imaginative re-setting of the company agenda that is fitted to solving any number of sustainability issues. We just need to be strategic about seeing, being and doing. Here are some key guiding principles:
Seeing is paramount
The real meaning of vision in leadership is what the leader sees and what she or he helps their people to see. Sustainable leadership means getting beyond conventional wisdom. The leader has to ruthlessly investigate, question, and challenge, especially what well-meaning allies tell them.
Leadership in sustainable business is about shaping reality – often by altering how people see things. Leaders need to climb out of the bubble we call accountability and take it as their duty to shape their organisations and groups, to embed the values, form and processes that they believe will prove sustainable. This takes vision and courage, and anyone can do it.
Don’t fall into the leadership ego trap. Remember you’re just the chief servant. Sustainable organisation means building culture and community. Family businesses with their protective ethos and long time horizon know this well. Think of the organisation like a theatre company, or better, a jazz orchestra. The leader is there to build an ensemble and secure a great performance. This means a culture where everyone acts out their role confidently, is able to improvise when required within the secure structure of the community, and where collectively, they deliver a performance of lasting glory.
You don’t know yourself as a leader until you try. Leaders need to expose themselves to different leadership situations to discover themselves as much as the world, and to find out what ways of leading work best for them. We are too narrow and conservative in the ways in which we select and develop leaders.
Know yourself – control yourself
Leaders need to know their weaknesses as well as their strengths. This means they need people to give them honest feedback, and they need to seek out feedback from sources other than their friends and admirers. Then they need to exercise self-control – to stop meddling, or to stop being so far off the ground that they can’t be reached. They need to avoid self-indulgent authenticity – making a virtue of unbridled instinct.
It is too easy to fall into the “lonely leader” syndrome. Leaders need confidants who will challenge them, support them, tell them the truth, and give them fresh perspectives and insights. These have to be cultivated and maintained. Don’t just rely on the top team. Professional coaches can help. The leader needs help in sustaining the long-term promise of their role.
Tell the story
Sustainability means leaders helping their people to see the connection between past, present, and future of the organisation, which may be the narrative explaining why the future cannot be like the past. The leader’s story is a value proposition for followers. It is the promise for what they can achieve together.
Nigel Nicholson (email@example.com) is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School.His latest book is "The 'I' of Leadership: Strategies for seeing, being and doing", published by Jossey-Bass on April 12th. Follow Nigel Nicholson (firstname.lastname@example.org) on @ioleadership.