Just over a year and a half ago the Harvard Business Review changed the way it ranked the world’s best performing chief executives, no longer solely basing its list on shareholder value and market capitalisation but including environmental, social and governance measures to gain a more balanced evaluation.
More than 20 years ago Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon.com, saw something no one else could see and turned Amazon into the world’s No 2 most admired company. Despite being highly demanding, thousands aspire to work for him, drawn to his vision.
The business world is experiencing disruption, and the phenomenal speed of change that got us to the 21st century’s technological frenzy is not going to slow down any time soon. Competition is intensifying, the world is getting smaller and there is an abundance of everything everywhere. Organisations are being challenged every day to invent and create, to develop and explore, to be agile in their thinking and innovative in their solutions. The ability to lead with conviction and influence decisions is critical to driving change.
Bono, lead singer of U2, used his rock star positioning to influence global leaders to write off debt owed by the poorest countries. Through his ONE and (RED) campaigns, he enlists organisations and millions of people to combat AIDS, poverty and preventable diseases. As he says, “Real leadership is when everyone else feels in charge.”
Since joining forces with the UN’s refugee agency in 2001, Angelina Jolie has undertaken 50 field missions to countries including Iraq, Syria and Pakistan. Her decision to explain her pre-emptive double mastectomy in a New York Times editorial created much controversy yet further illustrated her willingness to take a public stand and start the difficult conversation. Former British foreign secretary William Hague said: “Angelina Jolie represents a new type of leadership in the 21st century. Her strength lies in the fact that she is able to influence governments and move public opinion at the same time.”
Leaders are caught between two worlds: one that thrives on volatility and one that craves stability. The ongoing tug of war that ensues between the pursuit of growth and innovation on one side and a desire for control and constancy on the other is challenging traditional business structures to become more fluid and blended; innovation and invention are now necessary tools for success; and agility and decisiveness prerequisites for speed to market. Add to this a need for leaders to quit the realms of beige, to stop hiding in corner offices or behind job titles and to start standing for something.
What connects Bezos, Bono and Jolie is their willingness to stand for something, to use their position to influence and drive change around them. Driving change requires our leaders to stand solidly in their space of expertise. They need to embrace the opportunity that exists when diverse networks and opinions are encouraged; they need to create cultures where there is the freedom to discuss and debate; and they need to understand their responsibility in amplifying others to succeed.
One thing is sure: leaders who position themselves will drive change because it is here where there exists the opportunity to influence more through inspiring others, shifting behaviour and creating the ripple effect of change and momentum.