Leading on Purpose and other lessons from 2020


 ‘A dizzying disorientation brought upon by the rapid arrival of the future.’ 

Alvin Toffler, in his book, Future Shock, used these words when describing a psychological condition brought on by the accelerating pace of technological changes. It is a perfect description of what many of us must be feeling.

It’s been said hundreds of times. The world of work has changed. And this change is manifesting in multiple ways, a key one being the way leaders lead. What is now required is nothing new, it’s a stye of leadership and an organisational structure futurists and business strategists have been calling for decades. And  finally people are starting to take note.

In 2009, Tom Peters wrote yet another book, Re-Imagine, calling for flexible working teams and the elimination of hierarchical organisational structures. He said that technology was a mega enabler and that in essence, the nature of work was changing. He described his idea of business at its best as “an emotional, vital, innovative, joyful, creative entrepreneurial endeavour that elicits maximum concerted human potential in pursuit of excellence and the wholehearted provision of service to others.” He maintained that very few organisations across the world could meet this description.

Peters has been writing and speaking about this for over 40 years and still, nobody really listened.

Business consultant and coach, and Forbes magazine contributor, Nicole Bendaly’s 2020 research into a wide variety of businesses and corporate teams, proved this, yet again. For her it was abundantly clear that those teams who have been able to thrive more than struggle during the pandemic are those that are being led by leaders who prioritize their people.

She notes that leaders today are not simply leading remote teams, they are leading remote teams during a pandemic. This is a big difference that can be easily forgotten as we settle into new norms. In a recent Forbes article, she tabled three leadership best practices that came out of 2020.  These are wonderful practical examples which exemplify some of the leadership principles which underpin our work as a leadership development organisation.

The first leadership ‘best-practice’ talks to being connected to one’s context. We cannot influence anything we are not connected to. If we are out of touch with the context and world views of those we seek to lead, we have a very limited chance of building any form of meaningful relationship.

No matter how much authority one has, if we don’t understand the context and perspectives of those we lead, it is impossible to engender any form of meaningful and lasting influence.

Bendaly’s tabled her first finding as the practice of Understanding and Appreciating the Effort:

The most effective teams today have leaders who never lose site of the context in which their people are working, and who strive to understand and acknowledge the extra effort, energy, and capacity that is now required to achieve results during a time of such disruption. The best leaders in 2020 were acutely aware that what people are craving most right now is to be seen, understood, and appreciated for what they are dealing with behind their computer screens.

The lesson is clear: recognizing effort matters as much as recognizing outcomes when it comes to building a highly engaged, high-performing team. When leaders take time to both understand and appreciate the effort of their team members, they are showing they care about their team members as much as they care about the outcomes they are producing. When leaders focus on the effort by demonstrating curiosity for what it takes to achieve the outcomes, they strengthen dialogue and collaboration, shared learning, and innovation. And finally, understanding and appreciating the effort strengthens the main driver of employee engagement: trust. Research shows that an individual is 12 times more likely to be engaged when they trust their leader, and trust is built when leaders show they genuinely care about their team members.

Her second finding emphasises the principle that it is followers who change things, not leaders. Leaders might have ideas, and the resources required to implement, but only followers can change things when they buy in and believe in a shared agenda. Trust is an indispensable reason for following and it links right back to the importance of connection.

Leaders who are connected to the context in which they lead, engage their followers with empathy and humility. They understand their followers and where they come from. They are curious about their context and they consider the world from their perspective. They are therefore able to inspire them to commit to a shared vision. As a result, their followership is empowered, capable and loyal. All this forms the basis of a solid team, working collectively with a shared purpose and vision. 

Bendaly’s second outcome of her 2020 research is the importance of Prioritizing Team Effectiveness:

A crisis, or even a significant change, will either propel a team to tap into its true greatness and shine, or it will widen any cracks in its foundation and cause the team to crumble. It is not surprising then that teams who were able to perform at their very best throughout 2020 were those who were already cohesive with a strong foundation of trust and respect. What 2020 taught many leaders is that teamwork matters now more than ever, and that if a team cannot function at its best and deliver exceptional results during stable times, there is little hope for it to function well during difficult times.

Leaders who waited to focus on teamwork until they had no choice, when their teams were suddenly and dramatically uprooted from their comfort-zones, paid a significant price in the form of burnout, overwhelm, frustration, wheel-spinning, wasted time and energy, and significant disengagement and reduced productivity. The silver lining though is that it is never too late to prioritize team effectiveness, and it doesn’t have to be complicated and time-consuming. The trick is to focus on the practices that are most essential to your team’s ability to perform well, no matter the disruption and change they face.  

Her research over 20 plus years has shown that the most resilient teams:

  • Know exactly what they are striving for and how to achieve it, together.
  • Focus on building and maintaining trust and respect.
  • Make the most of their team meetings.
  • Are change compatible.

Bendaly’s last point speaks to the deeply personal journey of being a leader.  Lead with Humanity runs dedicated leadership immersive experiences to help leaders either find or reconnect to their purpose. It is not an easy process. It takes intention, courage and a deep commitment to leadership as a way of life, a state of being. Bendaly speaks of it as a soul-searching, risk-taking journey that definitely requires playing outside of your comfort zone. This is what she says about her final, and most poignant point, Lead on Purpose:

As Nick Craig stated in his book, Leading from Purpose, whether in business or in our personal lives, a strong sense of purpose offers firm footing on shifting ground.  What better time to find and stay connected to your purpose then during a pandemic that has disrupted every aspect of our lives? When you are clear on your purpose as a leader you will lead more purposefully and authentically, and you will bring a level of focus, commitment, and energy that will propel you and your team forward regardless of how much the world shifts around you.

If you are not experiencing joy, energy, and passion in your work on a regular basis, even during times of crisis, then you are not connected to your true purpose as a leader and you (and your team) will suffer for it. This isn’t about each day being filled with rainbows and unicorns and being completely devoid of stressors, and challenges, it is about being grounded in something larger and more meaningful than the actual work you do; it is about knowing why you do what you do and knowing that you are contributing meaningfully to your organization, your team, and your own life in a way that is directly aligned with your values, and the impact you want to create. As Malcolm Gladwell says, “Hard work is a prison cell only if the work has no meaning.”

Arianna Huffington, founder of Thrive Global said: “Too many of us leave our lives, and in fact our souls, behind when we go to work.” She was referencing Socrates’ definition of his life mission, in Plato’s Apology. He said his purpose was to ‘awaken the Athenians to the supreme importance of attending to their souls.’ It is a timeless plea for humans to live a life of purpose and meaning in order to truly thrive.

It takes risk to be vulnerable and live in alignment to your purpose. But the risk in ignoring your purpose can be far greater – both personally and as a leader in your organisation.