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Unleashing potential:How enlightened leaders tackle the world’s most pressing challenges

By London School of Economics


Globe being held on a modern technology background illustrating global

The role of leadership is changing, and that’s good news for future generations. Throughout 2017 and 2018, Leaders on Purpose–an international, cross-sector collaborative–has conducted a research study focused on how fifteen top Fortune 500 CEOs make their organizations fit for the future. In this process, we have uncovered innovative strategies that promote both responsible business growth and planetary wellbeing. We have also found a consistent correlation between the leaders that are getting ahead in these efforts and a suite of new leadership approaches and strategies—three in particular:

1) Serving the Wider Stakeholder Ecosystem

The ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by governments of 193 countries points to both a significant opportunity and a fundamental shift in the business landscape. As these countries implement policies and incentives meant to support the successful achievement of these goals, they will look to the business community to play a significant role. Two organizations accepting this challenge are Sodexo and Ab-Inbev. Following the end of a 50-year conflict in 2016, the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with rebel FARC forces. Columbia’s National Sustainable Development Plan includes a reform program focusing on three primary areas: peace, education, and equity.

Sodexo and AB-InBev work with the government, local farmers, and the FARC in rebuilding peace in the area, for example, by introducing barley as commercial crop.

Our study found that many CEOs do not go through this process alone. Instead, they embed their organizations in relevant ecosystems of public and private partnerships and build on the SDGs as a common denominator connecting and coordinating diverse stakeholders.

2) Creating a Culture of Purpose

Embedding purpose within an organization is not simply an act of charity. In our increasingly networked age, it is a defining principle that drives the business forward. Companies such as Siemens introduce “ownership cultures” wherein equity ownership goes hand in hand with the development of cutting edge skillsets. Employees that choose to engage with technological and strategic innovation are allowed to share in organizational profits and benefit from the growth that they have helped to achieve.

Our study also shows that CEOs engage heavily in communication in order to sustain and promote their cultures of collaboration. They use message carriers to spread the word around the globe, embedding purpose and strategy in every business function. Their key goal: to incent purpose driven behavior.

3) Developing Organizational Agility

The third key finding that surfaced from our study is that there is a strong connection between purpose and agility. The leaders we interviewed say that knowing the right direction—their north star—is only half of the challenge. The other half involves discerning how to get there and fostering the necessary agility to do so. By promoting a culture of engaged-purpose, leaders can help employees move with more agility through the life cycle of new projects and initiatives. This activates a dynamic balance of traditional hierarchical processes, designed for scaling, accountability and execution with new adaptive non-hierarchical processes designed for fostering engagement, collaboration and creativity. Gone are the days of these different modalities being considered oppositional.

As DSM’s Feike Sijbesma told us, “you need both”. Many leaders are adding new leadership functions to their role, such as fostering psychological safety, reducing fear of failure, activating collaborative group processes, and optimizing group intelligence. As employees experience what it is like to work in a company that enables a good idea to come from anywhere with maximum agility, they respond with increased levels of engagement, retention and performance.Emergence

As our year long study comes to a close, the Leaders and Purpose team has much to reflect on and analyze. We are particularly interested in digging deeper into the most unique and surprising insights we have culled. This commitment is informed by the very CEOs we have studied. One of the most surprising things we discovered is how receptive purpose-driven leaders are to gleaning unforeseen insights. The CEOs we interviewed all delight in fostering cultures where serendipity and sense making spontaneously emerge.

By celebrating the art of the unexpected, they promote innovation and secure long lasting organizational success.

N.B. We thank Brad Gyori, Jill Juergensen, Kelsey Beuning, Nicole Bellisle, and Viviana Jimenez for research and editing support.

The five co-authors are: 

 Christa Gyori, Leaders on Purpose

Leith Sharp, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Dr. Christian Busch, Innovation and Co-Creation Lab, London School of Economics

Maya Brahman, The World Bank

Tatjana Kazakova, Horvath & Partners




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