Leadership and Sustainability - Overcoming What We Think We Know
15th September 2017
Leadership and sustainability may be two of the least tangible and most overused terms in the current language of business. Sustainability can appear to mean everything and nothing, at best a driver of innovation, at worst another set of metrics and marketing collateral. Leadership is perhaps best observed in its absence - who cannot point to a failure of leadership as the critical element that led to some catastrophe or terminal decline?
This article looks briefly at how organisations can give meaning to these often-meaningless terms through a model of societal engagement that brings together questions of purpose, personal growth and the ability to create value. The role of family business is particularly interesting in this context in that the stated values of a company can be connected to identifiable individuals (current or historical), rather than an anonymous group of investors and shareholders.
Bringing heart and mind together in leadership development
In 2015 I was asked to develop a new leadership programme to meet the talent development needs of a global bank. I worked with a range of social enterprises to create a model based around a value exchange, where teams from the corporate partner would spend time with the social business, working to address a key challenge. ‘Discovery’ and experiential programmes are an established part of the executive education and leadership portfolio of business schools and consultants, based on the assumption that we can often learn more about the way that we work by looking at other businesses.
But how can we create experiences that provide opportunities for deeper learning at the individual and organisational level? In designing leadership programmes around a value exchange the aim is to frame a question being faced by the partner social enterprise that directly connects the business model with the impact that is achieved. In many cases social enterprises are started by an individual with passion to address a particular issue, they may have a deep understanding and commitment to a cause and are motivated by a desire to achieve a positive impact. It is also the case that social entrepreneurs do not always possess the business skills or commercial acumen necessary to grow and scale a business.
Connecting these questions of business model and social impact can be likened to understanding the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of problem solving – or to put it another way, bringing the heart and mind together.
What is Adaptive Leadership and why it can help business leaders?
For people who generally work in a job that cannot easily be associated with any specific social benefit, being exposed to organisations and individuals that are completely clear and aligned in their purpose and motivation can be a powerful, sometimes unsettling experience.
The engagement is framed around a central ‘adaptive’ challenge – based on the work of Ron Heifetz at Harvard, this can be taken to mean a challenge that has no known or easy outcome. This definition captures the complex nature of the work of social entrepreneurs who might, for example, be seeking to serve the needs of an aging population, children at risk, the recovery community or young people facing homelessness. At the same time, leaders within business face uncertain, complex challenges all the time – so this framing – and developing the ability to distinguish adaptive and technical problems provides learning that is relevant and transferable.
Following the U Process facilitation model developed by Otto Scharmer at MIT, the team is taken through a series of interactions and dialogue to build up a wider systemic picture, recognizing tensions and conflict as expressed by different stakeholders. This ‘U’ model also holds the team in a ‘sensing’ phase where they are asked to question more, examining their assumptions, rather than coming up with solutions. For participants in the programme, this phase can feel frustrating, they are used to moving quickly to action. Leadership that is better able to generate different interpretations and be willing to acknowledge uncertainty and ignorance is more likely to be able to hold teams together in solving complex problems that require new learning.
Creating space for reflection in the programme allows the teams to make sense of the information they’ve gathered, think about their own role in the project and perhaps their purpose in a wider sense. When the teams do move into the ‘acting’ phase they draw on a much richer set of data and perspective to begin developing prototypes of ideas for the partner to increase their effectiveness and impact.
Developing socially responsible leaders
Following delivery of the ‘discovery’ programme in 2016 I reflected that besides building the skills of talented individuals, this type of approach can be very beneficial in terms of helping to demonstrate the role of the business in society. The programme connects the business to the social economy of a place in a way that can be enormously valuable, building relationships with a network of influencers who have created an enormous amount of social capital over many years.
Part of the beauty of this programme is in the way it enables exceptional individuals from within the business to connect with purpose through genuine value-creation with innovative and committed social entrepreneurs. There are so many opportunities for learning here. It seems to me that what the bank is trying to do here demonstrates the potential for alignment of leadership, strategy and social impact, but this is also where the nature of the business is so important.
Family business as a force for good
Many family businesses are uniquely placed to build connections with communities and important social issues because of historical legacy as well as their commercial activities. At the same time the question of leadership in relation to social impact has resonance as the work of the business is ultimately an expression of the values of the family that owns the company. I might venture that in many cases, family businesses would identify with the idea that while strategy can change and evolve, values remain constant, the search for how we turn these abstract yet essential ideas about ‘who we are’ into action in the present can mean acknowledging that, while we know where we are going, the steps in that journey are not yet fully clear.
The notion of leadership that doesn’t have all the answers is not new, but it may have greater relevance in these turbulent times, developing others to lead through uncertainty might require us to all become a little more comfortable in not-knowing, after all this could be where we find the greatest opportunities for learning.
Founder and Managing Director, EnSo Impact
Enso Impact works to address issues of energy and sustainability through project development, providing consultancy services and delivering leadership programmes. Based in the UK, EnSo Impact works internationally with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa. The purpose of EnSo is to deliver commercially successful work that results in positive social and environmental impact