Activating purpose and meaningful work through leadership. By Jenny Andersson

What does leadership look like in the 21st century?  What should stakeholders and employees expect of the Chairs and CEOs of the global luxury industry in a time of volatility, uncertainty, change and ambiguity (VUCA)?

In January, the Edelman Trust Barometer 2017 launched at WEF Davos showed a dramatic lowering in levels of trust in institutions and leadership on a worldwide basis.  Never has there been less faith in business leaders, politicians, academia or the media.

Globally we’re seeing the re-emergence of authoritarian, populist leadership.  On one side of the Atlantic we have the triumph of Trump; the colourful, inarticulate, loud, brash, opinionated global entrepreneur who is the epitome of the narcissistic hubris of the celebrity era.  A man who reflects a sense of unique entitlement to wield the personal power that business success has provided.  On the other side in Europe we have clear feedback from the electorates in Russia, Turkey, France that in these VUCA times people will scuttle back to a strong-arm leader who demands deference, is isolationist and populist, wields propaganda as a weapon and is wholly un-transparent and deceptive.

Never has there been less faith in business leaders, politicians, academia or the media.

But this form of individual, egocentric leadership of command and control flies in the face of what every forward-thinking business school is trying to teach and what many ethical companies are trying to achieve and adopt.  New models of leadership see the ego as being something to be managed and contained in the service of others.  What matters most is the organisational purpose, its people and customers, and its place in the preservation and improvement of social good and environmental needs.  Leaders take a role which holds the space to serve some greater vision than themselves and are delivering a customer experience with soul.

Let’s just think about that in terms of the luxury sector.  I’ve seen great business leadership in the luxury sector, true humanitarians who represent a traditional form of gentlemanly philanthropy at its best.  I’ve also seen embedded hierarchy, certainly a culture of deference, and varying degrees of elitism.

Perhaps one of the most worrying characteristics of luxury leadership is how often we recruit from our ranks.  How resistant we are to anything that looks like risk and how often we miss the chance for opportunity and change by resolutely sticking to the formula we know and are comfortable with.

Where can we look for inspiring leadership?

There are great examples.  The more charismatic authenticity of Richard Branson perhaps represents the first hybrid between egocentric leadership to purposeful and intentional leadership.  Paul Polman at Unilever’s vision of sustainable living is allowing a wide variety of purposeful intent to emerge from different Unilever brands.  But perhaps the most hopeful group is the quieter tribe of emergent experimenters who are creating wholly new business models and culture by activating purpose through self-management.

Leaders like Yvon Chouinard at Patagonia, Elon Musk at Tesla, Ricardo Semler at Semco in Brazil have moved to a different approach, which is facilitated emergence of vision, purpose and strategy.

Patagonia always had a clearly defined sense of culture within the organisation, and clear leadership.  Yvon’s book “Let My People Go Surfing” was a clear demonstration of the importance of the human experience within work.  But it has taken many years of hard struggle, changing business systems, refining the supply chain, to activate the organisation’s real environmental stewardship of the earth.  Yvon’s form of embodied leadership has held the space within Patagonia for its purpose to continually evolve and take shape.

Elon Musk’s leadership style has many strengths, but his purpose is what sustains him and keeps his team engaged and highly motivated.  He believes so strongly in his goals, that his team is effective because they believe in him. He’s doing it because he wants to see humanity colonize Mars.  Today, outer space is perhaps the ultimate luxury experience.

These are leaders who understand the value of charisma and courage, who may have mastered the power of direct communication via social media, but who use personal values and critically, well developed emergent intuition to drive their actions.

Many new business models and tools are emerging to support this process such as Otto Scharmer’s change management tool Theory U, Holacracy, Holonomics, Agile and self-managed approaches.  In different ways, these approaches tap into the creativity and inherent knowledge of individuals.  It views an organisation as a constantly evolving, living eco-system, and allow people to come to work as their whole selves while on a journey towards unfolding their unique potential.

By slowly transferring power and control away from the hierarchy and towards stakeholders, they enthuse and energise employees and other stakeholders alike in a co-creative environment that is less contrived and constructed cultural models of Google or Apple.  They facilitate ego-free workplaces where people can be true to their inner sense of rightness, their own moral compass, and fill the spiritual void that often manifests as a physical ache in us, a yearning for a ‘better way’ and reuniting with our true nature as human beings.

Under the stewardship of a conscious leader…

In addition to developing a new and inspiring purposeful vision, there is no doubt that activating a shift towards a very new and different business model requires brave and evolved leadership.  The key word here is evolved.  Leaders of these kind of organisations are already spiritual seekers. They ‘hold the space’ for the vision and journey towards a new management system, even when the going got occasionally very tough.  They are also often founder owned, or at the very least have people on their boards who have a similar vision of a better way of doing business.

In organisations that have successfully reshaped to self-managed business models, there is no overnight destruction of the company hierarchy without putting new structures in places; they gradually grow a new system of distributed leadership.  It’s also true to say all of these companies still have ‘leaders’; except that they are leaders who operate in a completely new way.  They hold the space for the vision that has been created; they host the party.

Evolving organisations hold the space for the vision that has been created; they host the party.

If you’re a small luxury brand, or even a global multinational, where could you begin?

Because this development is so new, there is no real template to do this work.  There may never be a template.  But it starts with an intention. It starts with the leader. Often the first step is for the existing leader or leadership team to deeply examine their own sense of purpose and mission.  Their own ‘why’?  To understand what would be deeply meaningful work for them to do in the world, and look at how that might relate to the organisation they lead.  They need to become grounded in their own sense of inner leadership first, and then move to develop an inspiring purposeful vision co-creatively from within.   

Jenny Andersson is a brand & business strategy consultant working with organisations and start-ups to transform their future prospects through purpose-led enterprise.  With over 30 years’ experience in brand communications, Jenny has worked with many of the world’s leading brands to integrate social and environmental purpose including Virgin, Levi Strauss and Timberland.  She holds an MBA, MSc in Psychology, is a Fellow of the RSA.

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