The audacity of soulful leadership

The audacity of soulful leadership


In 1999, I started my first job in the City in London, recruiting office staff into investment banks and other big corporates.

It was the boom days; all about making money, making sales and competing for the best talent. Budgets were big and headcounts were unrestrained. Companies offered a good salary, annual bonus, prestige and promotion prospects to attract the best people.

The internet was only just getting going and what we knew about a company was generally what we saw on TV or read in the newspaper.

19 years later, and the world is very different.

Extra-ordinary times

Airbnb’s Co-Founder and CEO, Brian Chesky, recently wrote to the Airbnb community outlining the plans for Airbnb to be a 21st century company.

In his letter, he talks about the company’s responsibility to it’s stakeholders in and outside the Airbnb community and announced the release of it’s first annual stakeholder report. This will outline how Airbnb will hold themselves accountable to their stakeholders and how they will measure their progress in becoming a 21st century company.

Some thought it to be vague, I didn’t. When you’re a brave leader, you’re not afraid to outline a vision for your company that looks different to what’s gone before, different to the conventional. (Sometimes you don’t know exactly what the details look like, you just know what you’re striving for and why and the rest unfolds as you co-create with your team).

These are extra-ordinary times. With the sheer scale, influence, reach and revenues that companies now have, people are demanding more from for-profit (and non-profit) organisations.

A focus on the bottom line, beating competitors and returns to shareholders is no longer enough. For potential employees; pay, prestige and career prospects are no longer enough.

People want to know what companies are doing with their profit, besides rewarding it’s shareholders.

They want to know how you invest in and grow your people, create healthy work environments, use technology and affect the community that your business operates in.

Having spent the majority of my career at BlackRock, I was proud to read Larry Fink’s recent annual letter to the CEOs of the major companies it invests in. He outlined the importance of companies having purpose, of BlackRock's position in supporting practices that drive long-term growth and called for companies to demonstrate their social purpose and show leadership on important social issues like climate change, human rights, technology and diversity on boards, or risk losing investment.

Where there is great power, there is great responsibility –
Winston Churchill

Technology, specifically social media, has played a huge part in us demanding more responsibility from big profit making companies. We now have access to real time updates about the behavior (and the moral and ethics) of people in positions of power (think Uber, United Airlines, Miramax). Companies now get instant, and sometimes, devastating feedback on disastrous advertising campaigns exposing their lack of diverse leadership or understanding of the world they are operating in (think Pepsi, Dove, H&M).

The world has changed, and is changing, on so many levels. The sharing of information, within seconds, across the globe, is sparking a totally new and needed public discourse.

What was done or pushed behind closed doors before, is now out in the open for all to see, hear, share and take action.

Companies are being held accountable to think not just about their bottom line, but about their social purpose, their impact on the environment, the role they play in the communities where they sell their products and services and employee people. To have business practices that enable long term growth and sustainability for the company and the people that make it successful.

Brian Chesky calls it an infinite time horizon, an infinite company.

The need for meaning and purpose

There's always talk about millennials or the younger workforce wanting jobs and careers with meaning and purpose. I believe we all want that. Regardless of how old we are or where we are in our life or careers.

We all want to feel part of something that's bigger than us, we all want to feel like what we do every day has meaning, beyond just paying the bills.

We want (and need) longevity in our careers and businesses.

Gone are the days when, if you kept your head down and did what you needed to do to eventually get the 'corner office', or earned enough in your business to finally shut up shop and retire at 60.

What does it take to lead a 21st century company?

How do you lead for long term growth, sustainability, an infinite time horizon?

The world has changed and continues to change dramatically, and traditional leadership ideas and ways of developing leaders needs to change too. We need something more, something deeper.

This is not forgetting about the numbers, ignoring data and analysis, avoiding difficult conversations or making tough decisions. It's that, and more.

11 things soulful leaders do:

  1. Create healthy work cultures where everyone feels like they can express themselves and show up to work being fully who they are, so that they can do their best work

  2. Grow the next generation of leaders – not only to lead their businesses but to have an impact on the society in which they do business

  3. Take care of their integral health - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual - so they have the capacity to do the work they really want to do and hold the pressures that come with the responsibility of leadership

  4. Encourage innovation and creativity, enabling their teams to take informed risks and learn from the failures, so they can create products and services that solve customer problems and problems of the broader society in which they operate

  5. Have a brave and bold vision that they communicate in a way that connects and inspires the people they lead so they know they are doing meaningful work

  6. Stop for breath - take deliberate pauses in life and work to reflect, reconnect and recharge, so they can expand their perspective and see up over the trench and beyond the field

  7. Hold compassion for themselves and others in all people decisions

  8. Know how their life experiences have informed who they are; their strengths that make them great leaders and their beliefs that hold them back

  9. Know their values, and their beliefs about the world, and understand how these inform how they do business and their morals and ethics

  10. Bring their full unique presence to the room, and understand the broader impact of what they say and do to those watching and listening

  11. Know what keeps them centred and imperturbable in the face of wins and losses

What else would you add to this list?

Let’s all be braver, connect more deeply with ourselves, with the impact of our businesses and take the step into a more soulful way of leadership.

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