Part 5: Leadership
Victoria Hurth is Associate Professor in Marketing & Sustainable Business and Faculty of Business Lead: Student Satisfaction at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom.
Editor’s Note: This is the final post in a 5-part series on the interconnected linkages between purpose, governance, marketing, a culture of purpose, and leadership as they relate to sustainability and the GRLI’s broader inquiry into global responsibility. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4, or access the full series.
The final topic I have been focusing on more recently is that of leadership and its cross-cutting role in bringing about the changes in organisational purpose, governance and marketing that are needed.
One of the things that I appreciate very much about my life and work is the great people I have the pleasure of collaborating with. I have outlined a number in previous blogs. The realm of leadership has brought me into partnership with Sarah Rozenthuler (of ‘Life-Changing Conversations’ fame) and Alison Miles (Senior Lecturer in Leadership at UWE). Alison and I have been contributing to Sarah’s forthcoming book on purpose-led leadership and that has helped hone my thinking on precisely what type of leadership is required and how this does or doesn’t relate to existing leadership theories.
The first key thing for me to emphasise here is that purpose and leadership are intricately linked. I have already talked about the role of governance leadership in setting purpose and steering the course in an earlier article. Here I would like to focus on the role of top executives for implementing purpose. While purpose is not owned by the top and requires multi-level dispersed leadership, but the senior layer is critical. As Bartlett and Ghoshal proposed in one of the earliest academic articles about purpose,
‘Purpose — not strategy — is the reason an organization exists. Its definition and articulation must be top management’s first responsibility’
This puts the creation and maintenance of a deep emotional connection between employees and the organisational reason for existence as not just something else an executive as to deal with — but even more important than strategy. This de-emphasis on strategy also indicates the role of purpose in creating organisational agility by providing a clear motivational frame within which distributed and collective leadership can flourish responsively. This is not just about saying the necessary things at the right time (which is completely vital), but about the practical mechanics of alignment. As Sarah has discerned, the original purpose — the espoused purpose, the lived purpose and the ideal purpose — are often not the same thing. Creating alignment between them is the key to enabling an organisation to be authentically purpose-driven and hence reap the cultural conditions and subsequent long-term rewards purpose promises.
So given the huge shift that purpose represents for most businesses, what corresponding kind of leadership is required? Sarah’s book will reveal the details in much more vivid colour and eloquence, while other authors such as David Grayson have already offered considered insights.
However here are four of the aspects I would like to highlight that are important for me. First, the evidence suggests that (as introduced in my blog about marketing) the right way of achieving purpose cannot be achieved with a command-and-control style that assumes the answers can be ‘known’ from a single source and rolled out. So the overall style required is instead about bringing forth what the system needs via the enabling the resources within in.
Second, that leaders need to get really good at understanding themselves and the system they and their organisations operate in. This means finding their personal purpose and humanity and understanding what makes it tick and what dulls it — you can’t tap into the emotional capital in others if you don’t understand your own. This is counter to how generations of business people have been educated — that we are self-serving creatures who are at our best when operating purely rationally. Undoing those learned behaviours and the processes in an organisation that sustain that mirage of reality is not easy work (and organisations like the Eth Word have been doing great work to bring about this change). Beyond understanding the humanity that needs purpose, is understanding the mechanics of how to bring it about. This is about having a long-term systems perspective and the ability to engage in co-creative conversations with the system to understand it deeply. It is about truly understanding how the world is an interconnected system and what the implications of that are. It is doing the slog to continually scan for the key networks of interdependence that will make or break an organisations ability to serve others in the long-term — in other words what is truly ‘material’. So, this is both about changing the general approach to all decision-making by leaders but also about upping core knowledge. Purpose cannot be achieved without really understanding the drivers of unsustainability, working out how to redesign business models in the context of markets and stakeholder reality and designing brilliant metrics to get you there.
The third aspect is highly related to the first and it is about co-creative processes. A leader cannot involve themselves in system change — both internal and external, without grasping their own personal insufficiency. How can one person both discern all the barriers and opportunities and then single-handedly motivate the change required? Of course, they can’t. They can however find the right people who understand enough about different parts of the systems to work together to walk the path that the purpose motivates. With each step the best pathway changes slightly, so this is about ongoing collaborative partnerships — not a one-time brainstorming session with stakeholders. The power of purpose is to provide the clear context for the co-creation to occur in a way that each party can connect to — and a context which matters enough for people to be driven to engage.
Finally, I would like to highlight the leadership skill required to bring clarity and meaning to the question of what the organisation’s purpose is. This is something that requires initial competence by the governing body and executive team and then leadership at all levels. It is not just about deciding who the organisation is primarily serving, and in what core way. It is about deciding how to articulate that purpose in a way that serves to differentiate and at the same time unite. It is about bringing structure but not so much that empowerment and agility are stifled. Purpose as a source of unique identity is important, not just for employees but also for customers and all stakeholders. It helps make clear who, at the deepest level, the organisation really is. However, at the same time for me a core value of purpose is that it unites all organisations at the outer reaches — to deliver long-term well-being for humanity. So in a sense you might say that all organisations and individuals have the same meta purpose frame. It is this that allows competitors to become collaborators whilst pursuing their unique purpose and for traditional boundaries of NGOs, charities and traditional commercial organisations to visibly dissolve. So, the balance between collaboration and differentiation, and also between how much specificity about how to implement purpose versus how much to let the organisation work it out themselves — are core requirements at the frontier of leadership. To get this balance right requires being tuned in to what the organisation and broader system needs at any one point.
I believe that this is the start of much fruitful debate and research about how leaders can be supported in transitioning their organisations from purpose-void to purpose-driven and I look forward to developing my personal perspectives through collaboration with others. I hope you enjoyed reading these posts which I have very much enjoyed putting together for the GRLI.
See all five posts in this series here.
Victoria Hurth is Associate Professor in Marketing & Sustainable Business and Faculty of Business Lead: Student Satisfaction at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom.
Reach Victoria at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at @VictoriaHurth.