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In Search of Sustainable Leadership:
Choosing a Way Forward

This is the sixth in a series of articles examining the many facets of ‘sustainable leadership.’ Find links to the entire series below.

Our search for sustainable leadership has shown how vision, values, and purpose enable us not only to cope with change but to use change to become stronger. In a world of constant change this brings sustainable competitive advantage. To achieve this we need to create an inspiring vision. That vision will be stronger if we first widen our options by looking for the opportunities that exist inside any crisis.

The previous article showed how to find those opportunities. This article discusses how to choose between them.

Find What You Love

Having identified more options for moving forward, a churning world makes it more difficult to choose which one to implement: When the future is unpredictable, how can we know which way forward will turn out best?

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Steve Jobs had a simple answer to this question. He was an imperfect human being like the rest of us but he achieved more in his short life than many of us do. Describing what enabled him to recover and find new direction after being fired by his own company, he said, “You’ve got to find what you love … If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

In a time of change, this makes sense. Love is what will bring the inspiration to keep us going when difficulties arise – and keep our employees, customers and investors going, too.

But love can be difficult to convert into a business plan. And what if we haven’t found what we love yet? Are there other approaches we can apply?


Benchmarking is the process of looking for existing best practices in other industries, then adapting them to meet our own needs. The best practice example for achieving results in highly unpredictable circumstances must surely be elite army units. Special forces operating behind enemy lines have different objectives from you and me but they know how to accomplish specific, measurable goals in highly uncertain, even hostile environments.

They achieve their goals, despite those difficulties, by defining two things:

  • First, as well as knowing their primary objective (to capture the target, gather intelligence, etc) they also make sure that every team member understands the wider purpose of the mission – the role it plays as part of the larger campaign. Then, when things turn out differently from expected, they can easily adapt to carry out other, independent actions that support the same aims.
  • Second, each unit is given rules of engagement. These define what actions (such as returning fire) are appropriate and inappropriate under different circumstances. This keeps the unit focused on its highest priorities, maximizing the chances of success.

By defining these two simple principles of conduct – purpose and rules of engagement – elite army units are able to go into highly unpredictable, even hostile environments and adapt to changing circumstances in ways that maximize their potential to achieve the outcomes they seek.

As we move forward to accomplish our objectives in a changing world, we too face unpredictable circumstances. The equivalents of purpose and rules of engagement for us are our purpose and values: these define the underlying intent behind what we are doing and the way we choose to act in the world. And, unlike the army units, we get to choose them for ourselves:

  • To find your values, think back to times when you have felt most alive, in flow, operating at the maximum of your potential – ‘doing what you are here to do.’ Ask yourself what values you were upholding in those moments. These are your core values.
  • To find your purpose, identify your two best qualities and how you love applying them. Then define what an ideal world looks like to you. Your purpose is to create whatever an ideal world looks like to you, by applying your two best qualities in the ways you most love.

When we define our purpose and values in these ways, we are effectively defining what we love, and making it actionable.

Then, when we work in organizations that align with our purpose and values, we feel “alive, in flow, applying our best qualities in the ways we most love to build what our ideal world looks like.” No wonder Gallup repeatedly finds that companies with highly engaged workforces significantly outperform their peers. No wonder Google provides “an environment where people can flourish and grow,” then commercializes the best of whatever emerges.

People who work in organizations that align with their purpose and values are not just building the organization, they are building themselves: fulfilling their deepest psychological drives, realizing their full potential, self-actualizing. And when people and organization work together in this way, they become a mechanism for bringing their shared purpose and values alive in the world.

Making Your Choice

We now know how to decide in which direction to move forward: Choose the option that aligns best with your purpose and values, given the conditions you face. Choose what you love.

In other words, like a sailor on the sea, if the weather is calm and the wind set fair, choose the course that leads most directly towards the purpose or port that you are aiming for. But if the wind is against you, then tack and jibe across it until the wind changes. Your short-term direction might appear disjointed but your long-term destination (purpose) remains unchanged.

This approach combines focus, determination and adaptability. In an uncertain world, it gives you the best chance of achieving the outcomes that matter most. And it reinforces your values and purpose by example, attracting more people who share those values and purpose, and creating an organization that uses change to become stronger.

Next Steps

Our search for sustainable leadership has now uncovered five steps towards making existing models of leadership “obsolete.”

All that is left is to make sure that we can implement our chosen way forward. The next article will describe two more skills or abilities for achieving this.

In Search of Sustainable Leadership, the series:

  1. In Search of Sustainable Leadership
  2. Building Antifragile Competitive Advantage
  3. Managing Transitions
  4. Creating Inspiration
  5. An Opportunity Mindset
  6. Choosing a Way Forward
  7. Keep Your Head When They Are Losing Theirs
  8. Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet

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