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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Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits. What you repeatedly do (i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day) ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray. – James Clear, Atomic Habits.

Habits

A significant chunk of our waking time is spent on autopilot, up to 45% according to Duke University research. In this state we are barely aware of the many, minute behaviours that make up each day.

There is good reason for this habitual repetition. Our brain, the ultra-efficient processor, is adept at saving energy. It would be impossible for the brain to plan, guide and monitor every action of every day. Rather, it focuses selectively (remember the selective attention test where you had to count the number of times players pass a ball? Watch a version of it here), defaulting to preferred and established pathways where possible, saving power for other needs. Default responses are activated by cues in the environment, initiated without intention and run to completion with minimal conscious control. We call them habits. They take around 90 days to establish and are notoriously difficult to shift.

Habits built on past experience may have been useful at some point, but not all of them are necessarily desirable. The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change by Charles Duhigg spent 120 weeks on various New York Times bestseller lists, suggesting that there is fair appetite for changing our less wanted habits.

Changing our habits

Habits work in a 3-step loop: cue, routine, reward. We can change our habits by changing the ‘routine’ part of the loop. Experimenting with identifying the cues, changing the routine and ascertaining whether we are still experiencing the same reward is the method proposed by Duhigg for changing a habit.

To give an example, Duhigg explains how he was in the habit of eating a chocolate biscuit each afternoon at around 3 o clock. He tried going for a walk instead of heading to the restaurant for the biscuit – changing the routine – but his craving for the sweet treat persisted. A little more experimentation with alternative routines led him to discover that a 5-10 minute chat with colleagues seemed to produce the same reward, that is, he had forgotten all about the chocolate biscuit. The ‘social interaction’ routine is replacing the ‘biscuit-eating’ routine. Over time this change of habit will stem a steady weight gain and leave a few more pennies in the pocket.

Getting started 

If you are struggling to get started, the trick according to habits expert James Clear is to start small, aim to improve one thing by one percent, do it in less than two minutes and do it again tomorrow.

The most critical habit to build, perhaps we can see it as a super-habit, is the habit of willpower. Willpower spills over into all aspects of life. It is strengthened by making conscious efforts: factor one activity into each day that requires a lot of discipline, delay gratification in small amounts.

Willpower is also positively impacted through preserving a degree of autonomy, where you have latitude to decide on and complete your own tasks. A lack of autonomy can be a profound stressor, as noted by Richard Sutton in his work “The Stress Code” (the likely topic of a future blog).

The sum of our autopilots

We hope for complex organizational challenges to be solved through a revised strategy, a new leadership mandate, a restructuring or the digital transformation. And yet it is the sum of all the little habits, the organisational autopilot, that makes the organisation what it is and directs what it achieves.

In a world where trust is reported as low – a condition negatively impacting relationships, engagement, voluntary effort, innovation, organisational alignment, stakeholder confidence and overall business results – raising our awareness of the autopilot, all those minute actions that build trust or deplete it, is a useful undertaking.

As leaders, we can go way beyond just ‘doing what we say we will do’. We can build the habits that build trust, and aim to change the ones that diminish it.

I have selected two (of a total of nine) habits that build trust, outlined by John Blakely:

  1. Go beyond the profit motive to deliver random acts of kindness to your stakeholders.
  2. Help others to deliver on their promises, through coaching and mentoring.

 

What do you repeatedly do, that makes you the leader you are? What can you do right now to establish habits that build trust?

 

Follow Gaylin on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GaylinJee

The WEF has issued a triple investment imperative: invest in reskilling at-risk workers, upskilling the workforce generally and in building learning centres in organisations. This is in preparation for the looming Fourth Industrial Revolution, a revolution that has become terribly fashionable in business parlance of late. One would think that 4IR seems quite distant from the realities of our everyday workplaces. Mine for one is not yet characterised by an interoperability of systems, and I complete most of my own dangerous and difficult tasks, with little assistance from connected machines.

a new mandate for business & leaders

Yet the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Study paints a picture that’s worthy of our attention. A significant level of unease on the part of employees is reported, with two thirds of people concerned about their future job prospects in the face of automation. This striking finding is most acute in developing markets. The new fear stalking the office corridor is the fear of robots. Deep involvement in discussion and in the process of sharing news may signal the desire to regain control and take back power. Engagement with media has jumped from 50 to 72 percentage points year on year.

But something else interesting is happening too. A new mandate is being issued for business and leaders.

Edelman has been measuring trust in the four institutions of government, business, media and NGO’s since 2001. South Africa was added in 2014. In the past, a lack of trust was reported across all four institutions. Trust has shifted from top-down (trusting those in positions of authority), to peer-to-peer (trusting people you perceive to be like you, and not necessarily those in positions of authority), to ‘local’, where individuals believe that they can control the relationship with their employers and that it is within their power to influence what happens within organisations. A new ‘trusted work’ paradigm is emerging. Within this paradigm, the rules are quite different. Employers are expected to re-assume responsibility for the learning and development torch that was ceremoniously handed down to individuals with the demise of the ‘job for life’ in the latter half of the last century. It could be argued that we had just started to get used to the psychological contract dictate that we are the masters of our own learning, growth and career destinies. The psychological contract is the term used to describe the unwritten set of obligations between employer and employee. Your working hours, job role and pay may be set and signed on paper, all that you expect your employer to deliver may not. Often these expectations are not articulated. However, unmet expectations erode trust, with the result that employee engagement declines, as does voluntary and creative effort. Given that creativity is a new currency for organisations, severed contracts are potentially disastrous.

The Edelman study shows that development, in the form of reskilling and retraining for digital futures, is falling at the foot of the employer once again. Employers are expected to engage on and address critical issues such as diversity, empowering with information, and retraining or reskilling so as to alleviate fears associated with digital, Fourth Industrial Revolution futures. In return, employees will advocate for the organization engaging broadly in the community on behalf of the organisation, and they will also be loyal to it.

Preparing for the future is becoming a shared responsibility.

75% of people believe that business can make money and improve society, says the study. The ‘trusted work’ paradigm requires that employers have a big idea for the company, a social aspiration or a purpose that employees can feel strongly about. Leaders, by their actions, are expected to persuade others that trust can be restored. 75% also believe that CEOs must stand up and act on important issues, and not wait for government. This finding is particularly noteworthy for South Africa: as trust falls, business is expected to lead.

Do not aim to build resilience, focus instead on becoming antifragile, says the statistician, scholar, essayist and former risk analyst, Nassim Taleb. Taleb looks at problems of probability, uncertainty and randomness. Whereas the resilient take shocks and stay the same, the antifragile get better. Staying the same is well out of fashion, it seems, and rather risky too. A new mandate is emerging for business and leaders, stand up with purpose and lead.