Jo Wackrill and Jessica Scholl: True Business Leaders see the Possibilities in Challenges

By Jo Wackrill and Jessica Scholl

True Business Leaders see the Possibilities in Challenges

By Jo Wackrill and Jessica Scholl

In a compelling blog last month, IBLF’s Chairman Mark Foster said: ‘Now is the time for today’s business leaders to step up with confidence to engage with the challenges the world faces and lead the way to smarter, more inclusive and more responsible growth’.

It is in seeing the possibilities where others see only challenges that is the mark of a true leader.

At the outset itself, we must point out that the term ‘business leader’ is often used too lightly. Every company has business executives, but do they all really have business leaders?

Too often we confuse those in leadership positions with ‘leaders’. To paraphrase Lord Michael Hastings (who moderated a recent dinner IBLF organised for 30 heads of major private Chinese companies), ‘Business executives care about their own business; the business leaders care about everyone’s business.’

What is being asked at this moment of business people is far more than the implementation and integration of sustainability policies and practices. It is a complete rethink of the nature of how growth and the engine of the capitalist model can be redefined to ensure long-term sustainability.

Crises are a great opportunity for such a rethink. So what is it that we want from our business leaders right now? Ronald Heifetz from the Harvard Kennedy School in his seminal book ‘Leadership without Easy Answers’, provides one of the most cogent descriptions: ‘In a crisis we tend to look for the wrong kind of leadership. We call for someone with answers, decision, strength, and a map of the future, someone who knows where we ought to be going – in short, someone who can make hard problems simple. Instead of looking for saviours, we should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions – problems that require us to learn new ways’.

It seems clear that the world’s current challenges require a new approach to leadership and the current crop of crises provided great forging ground for a new type of leader. We are conducting a CEO interview series with Ashridge Business School from which it is already becoming clear that there are some distinguishing characteristics of exemplary 21st century business leadership.

To give just one example, a new generation of ‘leaders’ do not shy away from challenges that require difficult trade-offs between short term performance and long term business, social and environmental sustainability. They demonstrate a personal commitment to the longevity of their brands, and even to ‘doing the right thing’. They look to catalyse sustainable solutions that draw in traditional partners into their orbit. They are masters at energising and mobilising people throughout their organisations.

Just as not all business executives are business leaders, not all business leaders are found in executive positions. While status and hierarchy can maximise the impacts of effective leadership, they are not a prerequisite. Instead, leaders are defined by the way they see and respond to the world around them as well as by the outcomes they achieve.

And if the outcome is to be long-term sustainable growth, the response of these new leaders must be to redefine that growth as smart, inclusive and responsible.

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