“Everything works, until it doesn’t”. This has become a familiar lament from many of the senior executives we encounter in our leadership development work. They describe organisations that are: fatigued by change and the pressure of work; have a sense that “something isn’t quite right”; display an increasing unease about the status quo; and feel ambiguous about “what next” for the business and for the development of leaders. These executives, tell us that they know that something is up, but dare not speak it and are regularly having conversations about the same subjects, but see no action or movement forward. In a word – Stuck.

It is hardly surprising that ‘organisational anxiety’ is on the rise, when we consider the existential nature of the issues that face business leaders today. In an age when many governments are hamstrung by massive debt and low levels of public trust, corporations are stepping beyond the traditional focus of profit generation and revenue growth to tackle societal issues such as climate change, gender inequality and poverty. These ‘Grand Challenges’, are wicked problems on steroids; they are complex, involve multiple interactions, connections, nonlinear and dynamic evolution; and above all, they create high degrees of uncertainty.

There is a paradox at play here, business and large corporations in particular, have been a significant contributor to creating these ‘Grand Challenges’ and the complexity and uncertainty they bring. Yet, it is these same corporations that have the potential to come together to tackle them. Lest we forget, it is business and the drive for profitable growth, rather than religion and government that has solved many of the problems humanity has faced. In the absence of an alternative to business, we must find new ways to balance, what has up to now been, the intractable paradox of profitable growth and purpose.

Nevertheless, in the face of these challenges, many of the assumptions about business, that we have held to be true for generations, are beginning to breakdown and deliver diminishing returns. It also feels like the language of leadership has become outmoded, unable to describe and deal with an increasingly complex and uncertain business world. Executives talk of the limitations of current assumptions, biases and leadership conventions. They tell us that the way they think and talk about leadership is limiting their ability to see and explore the novel and exciting possibilities before them.

In such a context, we believe it is time for a new language of leadership to emerge, a grammar better suited to describing and dealing with the complex nature of the 21st century. We have coined the phrase “Purposeful Leadership, not as the latest approach or ‘seven step model solving ambiguity, purpose and leadership’. More as a wakeup call to both business leaders and to those, like ourselves, who constantly question the effectiveness of current ways of developing leaders. What we are trying to suggest, is that in each unique leadership context there is a need for sensitivity and something deeper and more profound. Something that goes beyond simply executing the traditional functions of leadership as expressed in countless role profiles, best practice and value statements.

Through conversations, experimentation and inquiry our view of ‘purposeful’ leadership is slowly emerging. Some of the ingredients might include:

A new human language of leadership – Our leadership vocabulary is bereft of words that make us fully human; love, compassion, caring, playfulness, artistry, affection, tenderness and hope.

A passion for paradox – Our research tells us that leaders who thrive in the complex world of personal and organisational paradox, are able to skilfully hold the tension between competing goals, voices and interests

Stillness – Leaders who, despite the pace of change, create the moments to stop, find stillness and peace before making critical decisions. Contemplative leaders.

Unfolding – Leaders who have the courage, relentless curiosity and inquiry to challenge their own deep-seated conventions, convictions and assumptions about ‘how the world works’.

Self-reliance – Individuals who take charge of their own personal and leadership development, who have a capacity for self-help and learning rather than relying on consultants and management books.

Profitable growth – the challenge of finding and realising opportunities of this nature will not, and indeed cannot, go away. If they are of the right nature they will form the basis of new trajectories that will be part of the future solution, not todays challenges.

Bringing ‘Purposeful’ leadership to life, is collective and challenging work. Identifying solutions to today’s complex problems is not about sitting in a classroom and being told what the answer is by an “expert”. It’s about developing the capacity to learn how to learn, to be curious, to be relentless in the pursuit of testing a variety of ideas, to have the personal tools and capability to develop one’s own thinking. . We liken this to providing fishing rods not fish. Learning becomes a lifetime feast not a single meal.

‘Purposeful’ leadership will emerge in the moment, during conversations with leaders and development practitioners; in experimental and experiential learning spaces; and by our own willingness to listen to others, to have our own views and conventions disrupted.

We invite you to join us in this inquiry.

Andrew White

Alan Matcham

Dave Tullett