In his book “Lift as you rise”, Bonang Mohale describes leadership as ‘creating movement and influence’. This definition is resonant with Conscious Leadership, one of four tenets of a conscious business design, which, contrary to popular belief, is proven to deliver vastly superior financial returns (see the Firms of Endearment Studies). The other tenets of a conscious approach are higher purpose, wide stakeholder orientation and conscious culture / values.

Leadership, I believe, matters a great deal. The quality of our leaders affects the quality of our lives and of our families, of our communities, our country, and ultimately, of our planet. Each day, leaders touch numerous natural systems and millions of people through their choices and actions. The calling of leadership is serious business. And we can see that reflected in the year on year results of the Edelman Trust Barometer. 92% of respondents in the 2020 barometer believe that leaders must stand up and be counted, speaking out on issues that affect us all and not just on issues of company performance, and not waiting for governments to lead us. 75% of respondents believe that business can make money and improve society. Employers are expected to have a big idea for the company, a social aspiration, a larger purpose that employees can attach to and feel strongly about. This is the same purpose just mentioned above in the conscious capitalist approach, the one that sees companies outperforming their peers by large margins. Purpose just keeps popping up.

Dan Coyle’s extensive assimilation of research on highly successful groups illustrates that groups able to creatively problem-solve and innovate are marked out by their commitment to a higher purpose, to building psychological safety and to the practice of being vulnerable. Being vulnerable allows the group to transition to being invulnerable, or anti-fragile as Nassim Taleb might call it, a state of thriving through change and uncertainty. The trio of safety, vulnerability and purpose transforms collections of clever individuals to groups that achieve remarkable things.

I sit face-to-face with leaders and managers, one on one and in groups, almost daily. While a share of leaders remain myopic about the role of purpose (believing making money is the only purpose) and the full intra and extra-organisation impact of their decisions, a great many leaders feel the weight and responsibility of getting leadership ‘right’. It is a big job to deliver financial wealth and sustainability, people wellness and to solve the world’s most pressing challenges, or at least not contribute to making them worse. I see a lot of humans not wanting to fail or to disappoint, but rather to be perfect. Amidst growing complexity, connectedness, awareness and competition, a sense of anxiety is stirring. Leaders want to achieve, to exceed expectations and to be rewarded and remembered for that.

For decades leadership development was focused on imperfections. Our models, taken from clinical practice and the treatment of illness, aimed to fix what was broken. And here’s a most interesting thing – what discerns the leaders I have worked with and admire most, for the way they run financially healthy, gregarious and co-operative businesses, for their genuine care about people, and their articulation of a larger purpose through their operations, what discerns them is not perfection. What I observe is leaders increasingly willing to be vulnerable, to be honest and say “I don’t know the answer”, to listen to answers from all kinds of people, to be challenged, to take a risk and be wrong, to admit they do not have all the detail or the assurances that confer comfort. These leaders are not ‘perfect’ nor do they pretend to be. It is almost as if the more they accept their imperfections, the closer they get to creating the real influence and movement that Mohale defines as true leadership. Their modus operandi is to look for strengths and build teams around combinations of diverse, individual strengths. Teams where people are aware of and can leverage their strengths experience higher performance and engagement.

Indeed, the evidence for focusing on strengths, rather trying to panel beat weaknesses or aiming for the impossible ‘being good at everything’, is astounding. Research shows that growth potential in areas of strength is greater than in areas of weakness. We can work from the assumption that humans have natural proclivities or preferred ways of making an impact, and if we know more about them, we can build our skills in those areas, and then apply those skills as strengths. No one ‘perfect’ person can be expected to bring everything to the table.

But leaders can bring these questions to the table: what is the wider impact of the work that we do? How best can we solve the challenges at our feet? Who else but leadership would ask: What is the larger reason for our business to exist? There is a way to describe leaders who exercise this ability – we talk of them as being high on a Spiritual Quotient. SQ is an excellent addition to IQ and EQ.

Imperfect, but candid and humble leaders flourish in situations where there are fewer knowns, where the future is ‘emergent’. But everyone flourishes when we get better at addressing the question of the impact we have on other people, on our natural systems, and on our world.

“The world has an infinite supply of interesting problems, but it also has a infinite supply of important problems. I would love for us to focus on the latter.”

Andrew Ng, Founder of Baidu AI, Co-founder of Coursera.

 

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Some groups are more than the sum of their parts. They go beyond ‘performing’, beyond achieving financial targets, beyond balancing stakeholder needs.

Despite our best efforts to create perfect teams, a large number remain best on paper, an elite collection of IQs, track records, qualifications, agreeableness and inspiration, mostly as individuals. Others amalgamate to deliver profound impact. They appear to craft and refine a special type of relational capital, interacting with closeness, conflict and purpose. Reaching a ‘performing’ state is a not a desired end goal. There is always more. They coalesce to drive a larger agenda, running as thread between them, and only fully realised through their collective.

Relational capital, also known as social capital, is not built over-night. But it is increasingly badged as the secret sauce of transformative groups. So what is it? And are we already building it in our organisations?

Social capital refers to the functioning of social groups through interpersonal relationships. It is the shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, trust, cooperation and reciprocity within a group. It may seem that we already invest in building this kind of interaction with teams. Yet if we unpack what makes some groups exceptional at problem-solving and innovation, drawing on the work of Daniel Coyle, we note that highly successful groups are underwritten by efforts in three critical areas:

·      Building psychological safety

·      Being vulnerable (so that they can move to being invulnerable)

·      Having a purpose.

Are we explicitly tacking these kinds of issues in our work with teams? I would argue that in many ways, we are only touching the tip of the relational capital iceberg. It is certainly more fashionable to question, although we are still accepting and building the skills to do so, and the skills to speak up. Think of the continuum emerging from the radical candor of Kim Scott, moving right along to Ray Dalio’s radical truth and transparency. These are far from ‘the way things get done around here’ in most organizations, especially large legacy ones.

Margaret Heffernan insists that for good ideas and true innovation, human interaction is necessary, but it is not a measured, ‘objective’ roundtable debate of consensus seeking. Conflict and argument are essential, she notes, between motivated people who share bonds of loyalty and trust. Suddenly the ‘as is’ state starts to digress significantly from the ‘want to be’. Very few leaders intentionally create conflict and argument at work. In the face of conflict, most shy away or manage down. We do not trust much at work either. The gap seems big.

But investing in building relational or social capital as a ‘want to be’ state is likely to pay high dividends. At the most human level, as pressure intensifies, leaders and their teams are already fraying under the toxic pressure to deliver and to go beyond. Performing teams will need to go beyond, without burning out. Relational capital is the currency to shore up when chasing broader, transformative or game changing ambitions.

Thanks to the work of people such as Margaret Heffernan and Daniel Colye, we have a much richer understanding of the principles at play. The skills of highly successful groups are not predestined, they can be built, and many of them are ready to apply in our work with groups.

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What do these words describe?   Sense-making, visioning, inventing, relating.

It’s the MIT Sloan 4 Capabilities Leadership Framework.

How many leadership development programmes have a mainframe like this, how many leaders in organisations are developing these critical – some might say ethereal –  components of leadership?  I can think of a few leadership pointers that are less complex to assess, and easier to enhance than say ‘sense-making’ or ‘visioning’.

The truth is, it takes a deep, long, and often hard look at yourself, driven by yourself, to be great at things like relating and sense-making and visioning.  And this doesn’t happen in isolation.

Organisations, or collectives, that have these sorts of capabilities are no doubt better at creating wonderful experiences and products.  They are tapped in, tuned in.  Leaders create and curate the conditions where people who are wondrous at these things are also valued and supported, at more levels than just the top.  It’s not an easy job, producing remarkable things.  Command and control is not so far behind us.  According to Peter Senge, leaders will probably excel in about two of these areas.

How much are our comfort levels are at play when we face developing these leadership skills?  How does this impact the way they percolate through our organisations?

The results of a study by the Institute for the Future (IFTF) are great for pushing thinking boxes.  They speak of skills like ‘cognitive load management’, ‘design mindset’ and ‘new media literacy’ in addition to sense-making and social intelligence, which could be said to map to the MIT framework.  And they say everyone will need them.  Take a look at their skills of the future list here, and their forces shaping the world (which is partly how they arrived at this list of skills).  In 5 minutes, give yourself a score out of 10 for each skill.  How do you measure up?

This is one view, there are many.  I like this study because in place of predicting what jobs are needed, they looked at what skills we will need.  These skills will be in short supply in 2020, says the IFTF.  And we should all be thinking about our value proposition in the future workplace, and about crafting one that we will enjoy.

Perhaps we could plot an assimilation of these skills on the innovation curve.  Early adopters will drive their own value into the future.  They’ll be testing and refining, creating futures. It strikes me as a case of the disrupted and the disrupters.  But that’s a whole other blog.  What you’ll notice is that these skills will start to apply in just about every avenue of your life.

The future is not far away.   Is it already here?   Perhaps the future is starting today.

So here are the questions, the exciting ones.   What does the future require of leadership? What seeds are we planting for the leadership we’ll provide and need in the future?

There is no longer a lone ranger, one hero.  Superman is dead.  That’s ok.

Supermann blaue flamme