The five capacities of leadership with a human purpose

Osvald Bjelland, founder and vice chairman of The Performance Theatre, blogs about the theme of this year’s Performance Theatre 

This year’s Performance Theatre – held in Oslo on 13-14 June – brought together 200 global leaders and change-makers, from across business, civil society and government. With us were Rick Haythornthwaite, chairman of MasterCard and Centrica; former BP CEO Lord Browne of Madingley; professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies Robert Thurman; Yves Daccord, director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross; Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg; human dignity advocate Crown Prince Haakon; and education activist Malala Yousafzai.

This is just a flavour of the diversity we had in the room. So what drove this wide-ranging group to spend two days together in Norway? One source of motivation was clearly the opportunity to connect with people with surprising, provocative perspectives – individuals that can pull you out of your default mindset, and look at challenges and opportunities in a new light. But I think another powerful draw this year was our theme – ‘Leadership with a human purpose’.

From disillusionment, unemployment and an endemically wasteful society living as though it has two planets instead of one, to conflict, climate change and persistent inequality – it is clear we need to grow in a new way, fit for the realities of the future. And, to achieve that, we need a new kind of leadership, which is, at its core, concerned with supporting human progress, not only chasing short-term metrics.

But what does it mean to lead with a human purpose? What new leadership capacities are needed to meet the challenges of today’s world? Here are my ‘starter-for-ten’ reflections on the five most important:

1. The capacity to challenge assumptions

Good – and, especially, great – leadership is not about doing things the way they’ve always been done. Instead it is about challenging and often breaking with the status quo, seeking new ways of thinking and doing.

One assumption that badly needs challenging is our attitude to the future. We tend to plan and run our businesses, organisations and societies on the assumption that there is one future. But Dr Angela Wilkinson, strategic foresight counsellor for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, argued forcefully and creatively against this assumption, and said that in an uncertain world we cannot rely on predictions and forecasts based on extrapolations of what is true today. She urged us instead to see the future as “multiple, plural, and alive”. “We need to let the future breathe; we need to nurture it,” she said.

Hong Kong business leader Ronnie Chan challenged a widely-held assumption in the geopolitical sphere – that Asia will overtake the US as the world’s nucleus of power. David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, questioned the assumption that western NGOs are needed now more than ever and argued that “NGOs need to turn their liabilities into strengths”. And new Performance Theatre partner António Mexia, CEO of EDP, contested the primacy of classical economics, arguing that a 19th century way of thinking could not be used to solve 21st century problems.

2. The capacity to think and act across systems

Climate change. Inequality. Resource scarcity. Poverty. A defining feature of the world today is the proliferation of systems-sized challenges – or ‘wicked problems’ as they are often called. Wicked problems are problems so big and complex that they seem inherently impossible to solve, but yet are so pressing and serious we have no choice but to confront them. Xyntéo’s Dafydd Elis spoke about how these massive, intractable challenges mirror the complexity, interconnectedness and interdependence of our modern societies. In a systems-driven world leaders cannot allow industry and company priorities to blind them from the risks as well as synergies in other sectors.

At TPT Oslo systems challenges loomed large as a growing leadership priority. Jamie Drummond’s work on poverty, for international campaigning and advocacy organisation ONE, was a prime example of how businesses, governments and civil society are working together across sector boundaries to empower people to lift themselves out of poverty.

3. The capacity to listen to, and engage with, youth

Young perspectives are not valued enough in current decision-making. It not just that the young are the ones who will have to live with the consequences of today’s decisions – for good or for ill. This is important, but we need also to start recognising young leaders as a source of insight. In Oslo I was struck by the wisdom and far-sightedness of our younger speakers.

Dr Christian Busch, associate director of the London School of Economics Innovation Lab, reflected on ‘Generation Why?’ – the Millennials who increasingly want to work for companies that are ‘doing well by doing good’. He observed that, while many of today’s progressive leaders have followed a linear route – first doing well and then doing good – tomorrow’s leaders seem to be pursuing both ends at the same time. In short, there should be no conflict between business success and societal good.

Maria Fanjul, digital entrepreneur and CEO of Spanish e-ticketing website, was a fellow young speaker. A big highlight for me was one short but packed comment she made in the panel discussion on the future of leadership. When asked by moderator Geoff Colvin what her views were on the challenges of controlling the messaging on social media, she quipped “why is that [a lack of control] a bad thing?”

Alec Loorz, a climate activist who (at the age of 16!) led a law suit against the US government for its lack of action on climate change, spoke eloquently and passionately about the responsibility of today’s leaders the next generation. “Connect with those who will be affected by your decisions,” he urged.

4. The capacity to revolutionise trust

Public trust in businesses, governments and institutions continues to ebb. The days of ignoring angry, disenfranchised voices and of hiding behind lawyers, communications teams and meaningless reports are over. Compliance and transparency are vital but they do not guarantee trust.

Malala Yousafzai left a deep impression on me. She spoke with honesty, poise and wisdom about her fight for the fundamental right of children – and, in particular, girls – to an education. Achieving this goal is all about trust, entailing dialogue with the very people who tried to end her short life.

Yves Daccord of the International Committee of the Red Cross reinforced this difficult message. A core part of building trust with stakeholders – who in this case are potentially dangerous people – is to make yourself vulnerable and meet on their turf. Likewise, businesses must engage with their fiercest critics to rebuild broken trust.

And providing a business perspective, Rick Haythornthwaite discussed overcoming the convenient narrative that plays out in society: that the institution is ‘the bad guy’. 

5. The capacity for humility and curiosity

Arrogance, which assumes you know it all, is the enemy of effective leadership in a shifting world that demands continuous learning. Humility, on the other hand, is the gatekeeper to curiosity. Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon and Prime Minister Erna Solberg both demonstrated these twin capacities.

To conclude

These five leadership capacities – to challenge assumptions; to think and act across systems; to listen to, and engage with, youth; to revolutionise trust; and to stay humble and curious – are just initial thoughts about how leadership must change to suit the demands of today’s world.

We want to continue exploring these capacities. That is why we are launching the Leadership Vanguard – an initiative that seeks to identify, support and mobilise the next generation of leaders – all in the interest of reinventing growth.

Long-standing TPT partner DNV GL (whose 150th anniversary celebrations were woven into our Oslo programme) is helping to get this exciting programme off the ground, with chief operating officer Remi Eriksen playing a leading role.

A wide range of people and companies have helped us develop this idea, including Pekka Ala-Pietilä, chairman of Solidium and Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever .

At the heart of the vanguard is a programme of challenging interaction in which ‘rising stars’ from participating companies are exposed to established commercial leaders, thought leaders from a range of spheres and young innovators from around the world.  These groups will work together to explore a new approach to leadership while generating ideas for transformative projects.

I am hoping now that you can help us get this going. Who, in your mind, are the leaders at the vanguard of change? If you know of any individuals who meet this description, please send me your suggestions. We are looking for leaders from a wide spectrum of sectors, countries and ages. It doesn’t matter if they are unknown – we just want to find the visionaries, change-makers and pioneers that have the potential to transform our growth model.