We need new leadership, not new heros

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The heroic leader who carried the world on his shoulders has had his day. The important question to ask now is not which leader but what kind of leadership will come next. The way to find an answer is to return to the purpose, the “why”, of leadership. To understand the leadership we need, we must begin with the problems we need leaders to solve, and the change we hope to see.

Last year, Mary Johnstone-Louis and Charmain Love, current and former Chairs of B-Lab UK, wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review, heralding the decline and fall of the hero leader: “There can be luminaries. There can be innovators and iconoclasts. But there can be no singular heroes. Addressing the interconnected emergencies facing our societies and planet will require systems change, and transformations of that scale are a team sport.”

The article reflected on the downfall of Emmanuel Faber, CEO and Chairman of Danone, widely respected as “an emblem of purpose-driven business”. It is less a comment on Faber’s leadership or the details of his departure than on the kind of leadership that is needed to engage the challenges of our time and achieve meaningful positive change.

At the Oxford Character Project, we are exploring what this “new leadership” looks like. What leadership is needed to actualise human potential, innovate and activate systems, and address the complex problems we face in organisations and society?

The idea we have been considering is “character leadership”, the ability of leaders who exemplify courage, hope, and love to effect long-term, life-giving change. On this understanding, leadership is not fundamentally about status, hierarchy, or holding a position within an organisation. It is about recognising opportunities to influence for good, and understanding how to use them ethically and effectively. It is about the power of purpose and the central importance of values. We have been exploring three shifts:

First, leaders must have a strong moral compass and the courage to follow it, moving beyond the security of their comfort zones in order to push into the uncomfortable spaces that are home to the most difficult and most important problems.

Second, leaders must intentionally consider their actions and accomplishments as part of a wider system and seek to advance the good of others. As Matthew Lee of Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Programme sets out in his research, the foundational principle here is love.

Third, leaders must order short-term success to long-term change, building cultures and communities of hope. Research by Katrina Sawyer and Judy Clair points to the power of narrative as a key way this is achieved. Through the stories they tell and example they set, leaders, as Napoleon put it, are dealers in hope.

These three dynamics represent paths of leadership growth. Travel them together and there is a multiplier effect that works out in a pattern of leadership that is oriented towards human flourishing, builds transformational communities of hope, and enables positive sustainable change. The path is travelled by prioritising the human dynamics of character and purpose. It is a path that Scottish business has recently taken as its course, establishing a Business Commission for Purpose with the vision that “By 2030 all businesses in Scotland will have become purposeful businesses which profit from finding solutions for people and planet”. This is a promising pattern of leadership that deserves more attention and recognition. Will the new leaders follow?

Note: This post was first published in the BeenThereDoneThat newsletter on 8 July 2022.