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Purpose-driven leadership in a fast-changing world

Dr Christian Busch, FRSA, a lecturer at London School of Economics (LSE) & co-founder of Leaders on Purpose and the Sandbox Network, discusses how leaders can develop purpose-driven companies. He has been recognised by Thinkers50 as one of the top 30 new leadership thinkers to watch in 2019.


The pace of change has accelerated. Shifts in needs and mindsets as well as social and environmental pressures require companies to innovate across their organisations. Expectations are increasingly geared towards healthy combinations of money and meaning in the workplace and beyond.


Over the last decade, much of our research at the London School of Economics and at Leaders on Purpose has looked into the question of how we can develop purpose-driven companies. How can we develop these Impact Organizations – organisations that do well and good at the same time? Three themes have emerged as particularly pertinent:  


1) Actualising a purpose-driven organisation: Many leaders recognise the importance of a ‘real company purpose’, but there is often a void in terms of how to develop it. How can we do this? Organisations such as DNVGL and DSM use the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to inform their purpose while drawing on their (‘modernised’) legacy. Given that we tend to only value what we measure, committing to non-monetary key performance indicators can be effective, and integrating the purpose and values into day-to-day processes – including recruitment and job promotions – becomes paramount. At companies such as Mars, Danone, or IKEA, principles are increasingly being integrated into decision-making or performance reviews.


2) Using simple, embedded technology: Advances in technology allow us not only to build increasingly networked organisations but also to meaningfully engage people at scale. The potential of using new technologies such as artificial intelligence and the internet of things is enormous; for example, leading Turkish company Turkcell uses recognition software to identify the most interesting ideas from employees across the organisation. At the same time, basic technologies such as simple mobile phones can serve as platforms for meaningful low-cost innovation. RLabs, an organisation based in Cape Town, has used simple mobile phones and computers to build local communities and spread its low-cost education model.


RLabs, with almost no central resources, managed to scale into over 15 countries – not because of fancy technology, but because they identified local champions, gained a good understanding of local structures, and enhanced, rather than substituted, local social and human capital. Innovation communities such as Sandbox Network have used simple technology, including simple Facebook groups, to meaningfully engage people at scale by combining those with offline gatherings. Leaders should note this shift from ‘managing’ to ‘inspiring’ networked structures. Rather than having (or pretending to have) all the answers themselves, executives increasingly leverage technology to gain insights and let locals adapt based on the respective context.


3) Developing serendipity intelligence: One of the most surprising insights from our research is how receptive purpose-driven leaders are to gleaning unforeseen insights. Many successful executives delight in fostering cultures where serendipity and sense-making spontaneously emerge, for example by hosting project funerals (highlighting the insights from failed projects, which often leads to unexpected areas of application of the ideas). By celebrating the art of the unexpected, these companies promote innovation and secure long-lasting organisational success in a world in which we cannot predict what will happen next. Cultivating a serendipity skillset – the ability to “see” potential triggers and leverage the unexpected for positive outcomes – becomes a major capability in a rapidly changing world.


By following these three steps, organisations can start balancing profit and purpose and meaningfully engage employees at scale. My hope is that this research will help us build organisations that enable people to develop into who they are truly capable of becoming. There is certainly a big opportunity for businesses and their leaders to play an active part in shifting to an enlightened self-interest-based model of capitalism of which we can proudly tell our children and grandchildren – and that allows us to develop companies that are truly fit for the future.






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