“The weather is closing in, the ground beneath my feet is shaking, I’m at an edge, on an edge, and the view from here is shrouded in mist” Corporate Senior Executive, Davos 2017
Even a cursory glance at a newspaper these days gives a sense of the shaky grip we have on the forces that are driving change across and within our society. We see a world that has reached a tipping point; entered a threshold space where “the old order simply cannot contain the trajectory of the new.” We experience an extraordinary and palpable sense of urgency for the emergence of a more relevant and sustainable leadership archetype, people who are able to take the lead in shaping mindsets and leadership practices to create the conditions for greater engagement with all of society. Such a transformation is no longer an idealised or idle dream but a pressing business imperative.
A New Corporate Leadership Archetype
We see this new archetype of (corporate) leadership emerging. Leaders that no longer crave certainty but have learned to live with and lead in the face of unpredictability, ambiguity and complexity. Leaders with inner strength and resilience who hold the space for the development of their teams. These ‘space-holders’ do not just create the space within which meaningful conversations can take place; they actively sustain that space even when the tension of competing ideas and points of view ratchet up the discomfort. This new archetype has clarity, possesses the courage to act, and delivers direction and value by focusing on purpose and engagement for the organizations and communities they operate in.
In describing the emergence of this new archetype our intention is not to offer a prescription nor a five-step plan. This is not a new form of ‘super-charged’ heroic leader, nor is it a collective leadership mired in consensus and compromise. We see leaders taking responsibility for themselves and their actions and choosing to create the space for purposeful collective leadership.
In 2014 we interviewed 150+ CEOs to understand what it takes to develop the capability to be an authentic and effective leader in the 21st century. They described a meta-capability, an ‘early warning system’ that helps them predict how trends and contexts may intersect, interact and change direction. We coined the expression ‘Ripple Intelligence’ to describe how CEOs anticipate disruption, make time to plan and protect their organizations against unexpected events.
CEOs also described some kind of ‘individual awakening’, often catalysed by a personal challenge or a ‘defining moment’ or insight. A ‘night of the dark soul’, that initiated them into a new view of the world and shifted their awareness and behaviour. Critical in this transition was the journey from an ‘I’ to ‘We’ mindset, from Ego to Soul. A shift to a deep relational approach that recognises the possibilities that collective action and responsibility can create.
Accelerating the emergence of the new archetype – Leadership Journeys
It is clear we do not have time to wait for these ‘crucible’ moments to strike but must actively seek to create the conditions in which CEOs and the teams they lead can transition to a new level of leadership awareness and performance. DSM Food Specialities, for example, created such conditions when they embarked upon a series of tailored ‘Leadership Journeys’ co-created and led by their CEO.
These ‘Leadership Journeys’ are curated and tailor-made development experiences. The CEO contributes to the design and delivery of each journey providing intention and direction and plays an active part in it. A journey may address conventional issues, but does so using unconventional surrounding and activities, providing ‘impulses’ to trigger defining moments. What might the play ‘The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night’ have to reveal about empathy and communication? What insights are created by journaling? Or what new insight regarding ambition is triggered by a session with the director and primary violinist of the no.1 philharmonic orchestra in the world? The purpose of each journey is not passive content consumption or teaching but active individual and collective awakening to new ways of ‘being’ as a leader. ‘Leadership Impulse’, challenges to the thinking or senses, are used to stimulate and embed new perspectives or to throw old and unhelpful assumptions into sharp relief. Above all the space is created for leaders to explore, share, define and embed their individual and collective sense of purpose for the goal of overall value creation.
A Journey sits within an overall context of mindful leadership, driven initially by the CEO. It aims to contribute to a continuous state of being and doing as a leader rather than be a ‘once a year exercise’.
From our experience of designing Leadership Journeys here are a few guiderails to be aware of:
- Demonstrate competence – build trust and share permission to act, experiment, and learn together. Enrol the team in the questions – ‘Who are we? And whom do we serve?’ From this a clear and collective purpose will emerge.
- Build on firm foundations – activities build through personal, to group, to organization to industry understanding. Edging leaders out of their comfort zone.
- Do the hard climbing yourself – do not outsource personal and leadership development. Call on others to act as Sherpas but be in the thick of the learning as CEO. Sherpas are experienced guides, they help spread the load of learning, keep the group on safe ground but it is the participants that do the hard climbing.
- Get out of the office and the classroom – but keep it connected to specific work goals. Use unconventional approaches to tackle conventional problems like strategy and direction. Move from place to place to experience different energy levels, and the impact of different environments and approaches.
- Invite not instruct – offer experiences that allow individuals to interrogate their own interpretation and learning and determine how they will apply it.
- Impulse not content – the journey is an opportunity for ‘leadership impulses'. For individuals to explore personal experience not just consume content.
- Start close in – with something you know – your industry, trends and perspectives and purpose – before expanding and stepping into personal development and reflection.
- Create a vision - create a guiding light for the organization and a ‘why’ to base major decisions on.
Leadership Journeys are but one response to the urgent need to accelerate the emergence of new leadership practices. Business schools, like Saïd at University of Oxford, are adapting their programs to combine experience and theory and provide a useful stimulus to the development of meta-capabilities that are required to operate in a VUCA world.
The Business Benefits
For DSM Food Specialities the benefits were very clear;
- Increased courage – inspiring and safe space to host conversations that matter, at the individual and organizational level.
- Strengthened relationships – a space to address communication difficulties and build strong working and personal relationships.
- Increased ambition – a collective vehicle to create a sense of common purpose and ambition – ‘Enabling Better Food for Everyone’ – that can guide strategic and day-to-day decision making.
- Strengthened leadership community – creating a joint identity and narrative for the team and organization.
- Increased drive for self-mastery and development – where each leader can explore and realise their individual potential and contribute to the collective wisdom of the organization.
- Increased performance across the board – a focus for performance and business growth with significant increase in EBITDA, accelerated growth, increasing EES (Employee Engagement Score
- Increased execution speed – trust creates increased speed of recovery and space for more and more rapid learning whilst dealing with short and long-term business challenges.
We are in a threshold space, where a new leadership consciousness can emerge. This transformation requires the active development of a new corporate leadership archetype, built on an individual and collective sense of responsibility and awakening. Leaders who are able to live and lead with purpose, creating greater value in a business environment at this tipping point in time. So how do you address this challenge as a CEO? Do not outsource leadership development to a third party. Rather, work alongside them to lead your team. Not just to ensure they and the organization performs at a higher level – but also to help you and them become the leaders we need. Leaders who face their shadows and face the personal and collective challenges the world has presented to you.
Ilona Haaijer: Former President and CEO of DSM Food Specialties, Supervisory Board member of Royal Boskalis N.V., recipient of several international Leadership awards and accolades. CEO and senior leader with a successful 20+ year global track record in both B2C as well as B2B complex, multi-continent, multi-assets, multi-currency and multi-cultural environments.
Dave Tullett: An Associate Fellow at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. An experienced Integral development coach and leadership consultant, he is a former Vice President at Heidrick & Struggles. Areas of expertise include leadership development, individual and organizational purpose and talent management.
Andrew White: Associate Dean, Executive Education and Corporate Relations, Saïd Business School An experienced program director, teacher and researcher, his areas of expertise include innovation management and leadership development.