Leading at Lightspeed – a call to action

leadership for people who chose to lead

Let me ask you a question. As a leader, do you consider yourself a catalyst for positive change in the world? Do you consider your work a significant contribution to society? What about that of your organisation?

Some of us do, and some of us don't, or we may move between. I’ve certainly been in both camps.

Whether a graduate just starting out, a middle manger dealing with the pressures of being in the middle, or a senior executive yearning for something more - every action we take as professionals and leaders has a domino effect on the world around us – what do you want that to be?

Our approach and decisions impact our people, our customers, our suppliers, our organisations and in the end, the world - for better or for worse. To some this as an inconvenient truth – something that has to be ‘dealt’ with and ‘managed’. Others see this as an enormous opportunity to make our work and our lives really count for something. What about you?

Look around us.

There are so many areas demanding positive change providing so much opportunity to make a difference in 2019 and beyond.

The number of displaced people in the world is at record levels, with 20 more people displaced every minute. (UNHCR) Climate change is impacting how we live, with global flooding – look at events in the US last week, Houston in particular – likely to triple by 2030. (WRI) Unprecedented political changes and shifts in the West have almost become the norm. Deadly attacks on some people’s way of life seem more regular, in more parts of the world, than in the past. How we use technology both challenges and inspires us in equal parts. Gartner predicts that by 2020, 85% of customer interactions will be managed without a human, while I read in Time this week that 116 leading experts on Artificial Intelligence have called on the U.N. to ban the use of AI in weapons manufacturing. (TIME September 17)

And amongst all of this, we as leaders have vehicles for positive change at our fingertips – our organisations. Organisations are incredible communities of people and resources – so how are you using yours to make a difference in today’s world? We can channel the amazing combined power of our organisations’ people, supply chains and customers towards a positive impact and change - towards a chosen higher purpose. I believe it is leaders and organisations that harness this opportunity in 2017 and beyond that will acquire the strongest competitive advantage of all – an ethical advantage.

So what is an ethical advantage and is it worth it?

Leading people and building organisations since I was at university almost 20 years ago, including my own for more than 10 years (Development Beyond Learning) has helped me realise something. Leaders who see themselves and their organisations as catalysts for positive change, who pursue some sort of higher purpose, a bigger and more meaningful reason than profit – can and do change the world.

Not because they do some nice things for society on the side, or have a lovely sounding ‘CSR program’ on the website. Instead they realise in today’s world there is an emerging and very real economic benefit to businesses of having higher purpose and creating change. There is becoming a stronger connection between leaders and organisation behaving like change agents, with increases in customer engagement, employee engagement and profit.

Research suggests that those companies that practice business with aims of a higher purpose can grow as much as 755 times faster than those that are nonchalant. (Kotter and Heskett)

Why is this?

It gives them an ethical advantage. It gives them an elevated position in society that provides access to different types of ideas, engagement, resources and influence that were simply not apparent to them, and maybe not available, if they were otherwise only focussed on profit. It's the intangible advantage that comes from acting and orchestrating business in a moral way and higher way. It's the advantage that leaves both your employees and customers eager for more interaction, and so drives productivity and profit.

So, is it any surprise that research and results suggests that leaders who steer their employees, their ethos and their output in an ethical direction are benefiting from what has been coined as the ‘ethical advantage’?

Think about Tesla. A successful electric car and battery manufacturer with extremely high quality products, an engaged workforce, a strong brand – and strong financial performance too. Earlier this year, Tesla had a stock market of $15bn, valuing it higher than General Motors (Reuters). This is mind-blowing. Tesla is a company that didn't exist 15 years ago and is only now becoming a mainstream car brand. And it’s now worth more than the global household name car company founded 108 those years ago. Tesla has is one example of an organisation attaining an ethical advantage.

CEO and Founder of Tesla, Elon Musk, may be interested in electric cars and batteries however I would argue he is as, or more, interested in helping the world move to a more sustainable sources of energy and transport. As a leader he is tapping in to peoples shared and growing desire to live in more environmentally friendly ways. Leaders like Elon Musk are inspired by a higher purpose and are often able to motivate others to join the cause, spread awareness, and contribute a form of credibility that will encourage further action.

Higher purpose companies can lead companies to invest in projects that spur innovation when profit maximisation says they should not. An ethical advantage is about the intersection of a higher purpose with business goals, market share, shareholder value, employee values and engagement and supplier alignment – resulting in continuous change for a better in a world in area that matters to you and the community of people, suppliers and customers who follow you. Research shows that when the public picks up on the ethical values of a company, revenues increase by an average of 682% versus 166% for companies that were perceived to lack them. (Kotter)

But it’s not always easy to know where to start. When you’re fortunate enough to have a position in society where you can evoke change, often we don't know how. Here are three things we can all do as leaders to develop an ethical advantage and help drive positive change in the world.

1) It starts with you so lead by example. You must decide to be more responsive and take greater responsibility given the catalyst for change you have at your fingertips – your people and organisation.

2) Explore with your leaders and teams the role you together play in the world outside, the impact you have and would like to have. What are the areas demanding change you believe in?

3) Develop your managers and leaders to understand the macro-environment, and ensure there is a clear strategy or program to develop their skills in critical thinking, complex problem solving, ethical practice and social responsibility, managing successful and sustainable innovation, and creating a diverse & socially inclusive organisation – all skills needed to develop and execute your ethical advantage.

What difference do you want to make in the world?