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Servant Leaders and Unicorns - Bonar Institute for Purposeful Leadership

During the Q & A session after a talk on Success Through Purpose & Service, I was asked to elaborate on my comments on servant leaders, specifically in business. Below is an expanded version of my response.

All organizations need leaders to provide focus, purpose, strategy and tactics. While there are undeniable differences and critical nuances among corporate, political and spiritual leaders, they all share fundamental challenges, including: vision, belief, courage, resolve, resilience, and authenticity. Such leaders strive to evoke in others the purpose and meaning which inspire themselves.

 From my experience, the most successful business leaders are ethical; they make the principled decision to achieve goals greater than themselves and their organizations. Their authority relies more on influence than on power. They are servant leaders who have earned the right to lead. For some, their vision is anchored in Social Responsibility (Toms and Starbucks), for others it’s Excellence (Berkshire Hathaway) and Innovation and Discovery (Virgin). Their vision inspires others to believe that their vision is attainable. These leaders encourage others to reach for their dreams too. They have the courage,  resolve and resilience to pick themselves up when they inevitably stumble and sometimes fall. They serve as examples for others to follow. Servant leaders are true to their own values as well as those of their organizations. 

 Servant leaders see corporate success beyond the narrow imperatives of quarterly earnings. While profits are indispensable for survival and sustainability, they cannot be a company’s sole purpose. It matters how the money is made and reinvested. Many companies have policies to ban hate speech on their social media platforms. Amazon and Shopify are but two examples. Long term success is based on creating lasting worth for all their stakeholders: shareholders, employees, vendors, customers and the environment. All are unique yet interconnected in a vibrant community of mutual service.

For such businesses, service incorporates Moral Authority (adopting a higher purpose), Social Responsibility (creating prosperity for all stakeholders), Environmental Responsibility (promoting a greener, sustainable economy), and the Human Imperative (putting people first).

Purpose, Service & Success

Not all corporate leaders, of course, embrace servant leadership and many companies succeed without doing so. The most successful leaders, however, understand that corporate service is key to long-term prosperity. They do not discard old assets; instead they develop new ones based on professional and personal values which conform to the company’s corporate culture. Business success, in the long run, is about creating lasting worth for all stakeholders.

I have observed that exceptional executives are not only servant leaders but ‘unicorns’ as well. I use ‘unicorn’ not in the sense of a privately-held start-up company valued at over a billion dollars, but rather as a symbol of human longing to dream of new possibilities. In their thought-provoking book, Spiritual Intelligence: The Ultimate Intelligence (Bloomsbury, 2000), Danah Zohar & Ian Marshall write: “In the vision of quantum science, the whole of existence is a field of unicorns – a set of possibilities plucked out of the quantum vacuum’s infinite sea of potentiality”. The greatest leaders explore multiple possibilities and they innovate in ways others deem impossible. When servant leaders are also unicorns, new ways for companies to serve society profitably and meaningfully are discovered. (See my April 2017 article, An Enduring Question: Can a Company Have a Soul?) In an important sense, servant leaders-unicorns represent the very best of what is required of our business leaders.

 At the Bonar Institute, we are committed to supporting these leaders.

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