Complexity, Volatility, Purpose & Leadership

At the Bonar Institute for Purposeful Leadership, we work with executives who are dealing with the demands of increasingly complex problems in a volatile and uncertain global economy. The most recent example is the immediate and dramatic global reaction to the “Brexit” result. In the past, issues were generally more straightforward and could be solved more quickly and efficiently. Today, executives face problems that typically have no single right solution. How, for example, to respond to the ultimatum from a major client for more customized (and expensive) products at significantly reduced prices? Or, how to square increasing shareholder returns while simultaneously raising employees’ salaries? According to David Dotlich, Peter Cairo and Cade Cowan, these types of issues are paradoxes: Problems “complicated not just by a single set of contradictory forces but by many” (The Unfinished Leader, p. xi, 2014). Our focus at the Bonar Institute is to help leaders effectively manage these issues by helping them accept their inherent complexity and ambiguity, and then develop strategies to move forward.

While problem solving and flexibility remain necessary skills of a successful leader, they are not sufficient. Steven Stein and Howard Book identify in TheEQEdge (pp. 269-271, 2011), four pillars of highly successful leaders:

  1. Being centered, self-aware, straightforward and composed under stress
  2. Taking action, being decisive with follow-through on important decisions
  3. Having a participative management style, excellent listening and communication skills, focus on winning hearts and minds, accountable for their mistakes and imbued with a strong sense of social responsibility
  4. Being tough-minded, assertive, resilient and optimistic

Social responsibility is becoming increasingly important for executives and the companies that they lead.

From our experience with executives, it is their strong sense of purpose, of embracing a reality greater than themselves that brings the characteristics of successful leadership together. This creates the sharp focus that leads to effective, practical and transformational results. A leader’s “most important role is to be the steward of an organization’s purpose” (Nick Craig and Scott Snook, From Purpose to Impact. HBR, May 2014). Successful companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Royal Bank of Canada and Whole Foods identify and embrace the raison d’être of why they are in business. This is their higher purpose. It transcends the sole imperative of superior quarterly earnings. Profits are of course one of the most important drivers of business. But, they cannot be its sole purpose. A company’s higher purpose guides overarching decisions from governance and corporate structure to next generation succession planning to investments, including product development. These corporations align their purpose at the highest level with those of all their stakeholders: shareholders, employees, vendors, customers and the larger community. They devise strategies that engage stakeholders, as well as accommodate their specific behaviours, interests and needs. Business leaders “must never knowingly allow the overall enterprise to be harmed just to benefit one of its shareholders in the short term” (John Mackey and Raj Sisodia, Conscious Capitalism, 2013, p.305).

We are in the midst of an historic transition in corporate governance where the community and the environment are beginning to be seen as key stakeholders. At the Bonar Institute, we offer tailored programs to assist companies and their leaders acquire the skills and mind sets to be agents of change and responsible corporate stewards of our complex, volatile and uncertain world. The most successful companies already are …



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