21st Century leadership needs long-term perspective with short-term execution

The more apparent global sustainability issues become to people, the more businesses – and their leaders – are challenging their purpose around profit alone.

The 21st Century poses unique challenges that exceed humanity's current capabilities – and this is changing the context of work itself. New approaches to problem solving are emerging to reflect a wider business contribution to society. Success is being being weighed differently. As such, companies need a bigger purpose for people to collaborate and lead.

The World Economic Forum at Davos is a reflection of this. Once a place for world politicians to meet, it has grown a subculture of CEOs and entrepreneurs eager to engage on wider global topics – and one of the biggest challenges today is sustainability.

The same is expected to be true of the UN’s 2020 Climate Summit in Paris. It has become more common to see a wider business community at such gatherings.

The UN is gaining more traction in steering the global business agenda. Its 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 shape a vision to build a better environment, society and economy. These aim to eliminate poverty, hunger and provide education, water and better resources to people. They paint a picture for more harmonious ecosystem between society, environments and economies.

All lovely – but they require businesses to take real action.

Many multinationals – Ashridge included– have signed up this charter in an effort to encompass a wider mindset as they take on their own sustainability initiatives. Those early to the game are likely to have better results. For example, Unilever said it has already cut its own energy emissions by 52% since 2008.

Leading businesses understand if the planet fails to operate, so do they.

Even the most industrial and resource-intensive companies are beginning to signal their intentions to become cleaner, leaner and kinder. They understand profit is only one marker of success – but being valued by society is bigger and increases odds of business longevity.

This is a shift for leaders today. They need to prove their actions towards better practices, mindset and goals – not just talk about them.

Of course, a focus on profit is required – but with it a much wider and inclusive awareness of people, diversity and environment.

Sustainability is therefore a great example of how to think about wider issues of value for people. There are carrot and stick implications of whether they choose to embrace this or not.

For carrot lovers, companies can no longer avoid caring for their people and environments. Leaders need to rethink and retool. New skills will come – but first new perspectives are required.

Today’s leader needs to be aware of sustainability. They must move away from vague language and prove their intentions to their teams, customers, shareholders and wider stakeholders.

And in the first instance, that means encompassing a mindset of care, hope and future vision that people can relate to. People like to work in an aspirational environment where they can be proud of their values and actions.

Equally there is a path for those who prefer the stick. There will almost certainly be more scrutiny of companies’ operations. They will increasingly be required report their activities - or have them reported unofficially for them via social media. Greater sustainability regulations are almost certain.

It is therefore better to be the leader who gets ahead of this.

To take the wider perspective now and relate that to today’s team, business plan and ways of working will deliver a better outcome for profit, people and planet

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