As part of its #abetterway project, Quiero is asking how the sustainability and business equation will be affected by COVID-19. Here, we reflect on the future of business leadership based on Quiero’s conversations with 100 world leaders in the Americas, Asia and Europe.
Business leaders can transform the economy
Resilience is surely the most popular buzzword in business at the moment. We have made too many decisions based on cost alone, something which has proven to be the basis of our fragility.
Over the past few months, we have suffered the effects of vulnerable supply chains due to a combination of factors such as a lack of disaster preparedness, a lack of transparency and an over-reliance on globalization. Climate change is already one of the most concerning risks for business, along with other threats to human wellbeing. According to the renowned Edelman Global Trust Barometer conducted during this health crisis, only 43 percent of 10,000 respondents believe companies have acted adequately to protect their employees from the virus; and only 46 percent believe that companies are helping small suppliers and customers stay afloat.
Pillars on which we can build resilience
In times of crisis, we must be able to reimagine. Fighting disruptions and disasters with financial austerity, mass employee layoffs and various types of fine-tuning in the same, old planning systems is not the way forward. We need to design Moonshots — desirable and inspiring visions of the future — to ensure better days for society, the planet and business, instead of succumbing to predictable scenarios. We need to be visualizing the future we want, and, in a spirit of aspiration, taking firm steps to achieve it. This kind of Moonshot thinking has been responsible not only for the famous 1960s moon landing, but also numerous other breakthroughs since then.
The best leverage to build resilience and to reimagine? Experts around the world can't think of better tools than sustainability and regeneration — ensuring that we design new Moonshots consistent with science-based, context-based, net-positive thinking. Little wonder that a few weeks ago, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, yet again pointed to the European Green Deal as the smartest driving force behind recovery at this time. That said, ensuring economic recovery requires more than just bold ideas and investment.
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We need transformational business leaders equipped with the right skills, capacities and approaches — without them, we can’t expect big breakthroughs and the ‘moon landing’ leaps we need. The ever-evolving concept of business leadership is now especially critical, and the need for cultivating transformational qualities — undeniable.
5 characteristics and skills of transformational leaders
Our research highlights five elements that are essential for transformational leadership, along with important reflections on the ‘how-to.’
The first prerequisite for transformational leadership is the ability to create a culture of adaptation. To do that, executives need to step outside their comfort zones with relative ease; and to encourage their teams to do the same while rewarding them, accordingly. We also need leaders capable of identifying and acting on exponential trends. Strategic planning, risk assessment and innovation models continue to be mostly linear; but, as we have seen, we need to predict and react much better to exponential dynamics. In addition, adaptive leaders would be wise to promote non-hierarchical organizational structures that many are already experimenting with. Instead of always claiming to have the solution, top management could invite their teams to develop it.
Transformational leaders also have a clear grasp of all systems they’re operating in. These days, and going forward, being an effective company leader requires being a sector and system leader. Such leaders are able to say "No!" to things that are clearly no longer working, break away from existing norms and beliefs, and act rebellious when it is evident that something has stopped making sense. In this context, setting up open-minded innovation and collaboration is the key to positive disruption, beyond buzzwords and photo ops. Systemic leaders look to NGOs, activists, consumers, suppliers, governments, unions and other stakeholders for input and partnerships, as well as for collective behavioural changes that lead to systemic changes — all in the spirit of exploring new paths.
Further, transformational leaders are people who have already discovered the enormous power of the human dimension. They understand that a harmonious, elegant, fulfilling coming together of ‘personal life’ and ‘work life’ is what makes professionals shine and perform in the medium and long term — wisdom that is still not taught even in the most prestigious business schools.
Courage and humility go hand in hand. Unfortunately, but truthfully, there are some industries with big dark sides — look no further than fashion, for example, which is one of the most polluting sectors globally. Bringing these issues out into the open in a humble, vulnerable and trusting way is the best decision a leader can make in this day and age.
The 20th-century pseudo-wisdom saying ‘to admit failure is to show weakness’ is useless and harmful today. Transparency, integrity and empathy are the winning forces now.
Investing time in middle management represents one of the few best investments for transformational leaders — specifically, time for honest conversations, sharing and joint reflection. Such conversations can lead to catharsis, inspiration and productive ideation. This also helps build trust and continuous deep involvement from employees, ensuring consistently strong results over time.
Finally, the fifth element is purpose as the North Star and spine of the organisation, rather than just a slogan or communication plan.
Transformational leaders must have a purpose in their DNA that is greater than just making money — a clearly-defined, well-articulated positive social and/or environmental purpose that resonates in a real down-to-earth way with employees, consumers and other stakeholders.
Equipped with everything listed above, the business leaders of tomorrow will reimagine, transform, strengthen and empower not only their companies, but also all stakeholders and systems they touch with their work.