I recently spoke at HubWeek in Boston, Massachusetts. It’s an annual celebration of innovative thought leaders who are working to change the world. I focused my remarks on why a new kind of leadership is needed to make the most of the incredible opportunities available to business leaders. This is the key message in our latest publication, The New Leadership Agenda. What follows is the text of my talk.
There’s a new kind of leadership for a new kind of organisation. An organisation made of resourceful, imaginative, purposeful people who drive long-term success. This new way to lead isn’t an option, it’s an obligation.
But first, let me tell you a story about my five-year old son, Oliver, who wants to be both a doctor and a train driver.
The other night, I was reading him a story about a boy who had an imaginary dragon as a friend. As this boy grew older, his dragon retreated into his cave. Oliver turned to me and asked why they didn’t have adventures together anymore. I said, “The boy had to grow up.” He held that thought for a moment before declaring, “Mommy, the boy should grow down.”
And that got me thinking – if you grow down, all things are possible. No one can tell Oliver that he can’t be a doctor-train driver. Limits just don’t exist and you find new things are possible.
But as we enter the world of work, something happens. We begin to feel we’ve sacrificed some of our imagination to meet the demands of a boardroom or a balance sheet. We begin to see the world as it is, not as it could be.
That’s because most organisations and their leaders grew up in the era influenced by Fordism. They focus on tasks and targets. They steer us to conformity. So, we compromise, and it can be compromising.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
There are four forces changing the world today: a desire for social impact, a need for transparency and trust, the benefits of difference, and the evolution of technology. If we leverage them, rather than resist them, we can gain an incredible tailwind to innovate.
The last decade has seen huge societal change. We’re reframing values, reimagining companies and asking powerful questions.
As consumers, we want to see authenticity in the brands we engage with, so we vote with our wallets and fingertips. And that’s destabilising for leaders – purpose-led agendas are driving companies today as much as profit did in the past.
The nature of how we decide who we trust has changed. In the past, we trusted banks because they were big and old. We trusted the food we ate, or the medicines we took, because of the brands that stood behind them. But now, a review from one stranger makes it OK to get into a car with another.
Since the industrial revolution, companies have shaped economies around the assumption that conformity drives growth. To scale, we need patterns and order. But that’s not how the world works today. If a job’s repeatable, a computer could do it. So the thing that adds real value is human difference – difference of thought.
Technology advances fast. AI, ML, NLP, AR, VR – it’s a confusing soup of acronyms. And that makes it difficult to keep up and bring everyone along. But technology is a collaborative force, not a combative one. It’s not about what the technology makes possible, it’s about what we make possible using technology.
These four forces are shaping our world today. They’re compounding to create unprecedented opportunity to innovate – to create businesses that do well by doing good. At PA, for example, we’re using the power of ingenuity to build a positive human future in a technology-driven world.
Ingenuity means working with Water Source Australia, a B-Corp start-up, to provide reliable, clean drinking water to tens of thousands of people by using the Internet of Things and advanced analytics to predict problems before they occur.
Ingenuity means exploring new ways of learning with the Emergency Nurses Association—the leading professional association of emergency nurses—using digital technologies to deliver training and help nurses provide excellent care.
And ingenuity means finding sustainable solutions to the plastics problem by working with Loliware, a start-up designing seaweed-based material technology to replace single use-plastics, to develop straws made from seaweed.
But this sort of ingenuity that creates businesses for societal good takes bold, focused leadership. It takes a new kind of leader who focusses on four things:
Optimism releases serotonin, and that unlocks neural pathways that stimulate creative thinking. People don’t want to be around fear and blame, we want inspiration.
Optimism isn’t about wearing a smile. It’s about seeing constraints as a catalyst for creativity. It’s about believing that we can find a solution and approaching every challenge with a growth mindset.
Optimistic leaders are the ones best positioned to unlock human ingenuity.
Why would we assume the only good ideas come from the top? It’s likely someone in your organisation has a solution to the challenge. So ensure those ideas reach the surface.
Part of this will be about encouraging a little dissonance. Bring together teams with a variety of skills, experience and viewpoints and create an environment where people of all levels are happy to challenge ideas.
Organisations must be able to adapt. They can’t rely on yesterday’s playbook. Leaders need to create organisations that are responsive and agile, that can experiment to learn and move from idea to launch at warp speed.
Finally, look for inspiration from the widest possible sources. What if we take ideas from the arts and apply them in healthcare, science, technology or government?
The point is to look beyond your organisation and believe in the immense power of “not invented here.”
Today we live in a new era where four forces are changing the world around us. So, we need a new way to lead. The new leader is curious. They grow down. And they inspire innovation and demand excellence.
There’s never been a more important time for leaders to nurture human optimism, champion differences in teams, build adaptable organisations and seek inspiration in surprising places. There’s never been a better time to embrace a new way to lead.
The opportunity's never been greater for leaders of organisations large and small to create a positive human future