This week’s read is Rehumanizing Leadership: Putting Purpose Back into Business by Sudhanshu Palsule and Michael Chavez from Duke Corporate Education.

The book builds on three key insights that must be understood by anyone in a leadership position: 1) that our world is constantly changing at a speed never experienced before; 2) only those with strong shared purpose will survive, and 3) core skills such as empathy are going to be more in demand than ever before.

This is why we need to rehumanize leadership:

“Rehumanizing leadership is about transforming our organisations to operate from the axes of purpose and empathy with a view to creating a meaningful impact on the external environment of nature, market and society, and our workplaces” (p. 10).

The fast changing world requires a new playbook, a new way to think of leadership, and new mindsets in what we deem as acceptable corporate behaviour and thinking.


Changing world is placing new demands 

One of the most impactful changes in the last few years has been the ramping up of the use and possibilities of technology platforms that have changed the playing field how businesses operate.

This is not just from inside organisations as to which new platforms they choose to use to track their progress but also about the influence of new social media platforms on information sharing.

Any customer today can post their opinions to millions to see in a matter of few seconds, and most companies can no longer ignore the fact that the public discourse about them and their products is now open to everyone to participate in.

Social media platforms now enable these conversations in real time and allow “millions of consumers to voice their concerns, with a direct impact not only on corporate strategies but also on the fundamental ways in which companies think about how they operate” (p. 17)

But fundamentally the world is a different more complex place in the 21st century where information technology and information itself are becoming key currency, and where emerging complexity demands new kinds of skill sets.

For example, some of the 21st century skillsets relate to much softer skills such as “judgment, creativity, ingenuity and empathy” (p. 20) all of which require a much deeper understanding of other people and of the world, and majority of which are not taught in company trainings or at universities.

As the world grows more complex, there is also increasing uncertainty and ambiguity in what is actually happening, how markets and ideas are connected, and what is impacting what.

This is because we really now operate within a global system where we can predict but not always really know how each part of the system impacts another and where important ripple effects emerge.

In fact, Chavez and Palsule note that “the ability to quickly pick up weak signals from the environment and respond to them is fast becoming a mandatory requirement in the 21st century” (p. 23).

This links also directly to innovation but also to an increasing demand that those in leadership positions have an ability to follow, interpret and understand weak signals globally and their sector before big shifts happen.


Purpose and empathy in the midst of uncertainty 

Uncertainty is often unsettling especially since we have been operating with a set of fundamental assumptions from the 20th century that have enabled businesses to operate as they do.

Yet, the new era of increasing global complexity is calling for leadership that is much more purpose driven, that is able to bring the whole of organisation together for a common purpose that creates positive impacts, and where people’s well-being is respected and prioritised.

The work force now is much more interested in finding work that aligns with their values, that makes them truly feel they are contributing to something worthwhile.

As Chavez and Palsule note, “purpose is a far better glue to retain your best talent than any other factor” (p. 28) especially as “Enabling others to discover meaning, especially in a complex, uncertain environment is becoming the primary job of leaders” (p. 34).

This kind of leadership is based on increasing empathy that understands the importance of creating work spaces and places where people feel they can thrive and are respected.

This is especially important because our brains are hard wired to work with emotions in our thinking and decision making processes.

In fact, “positive feelings generate activity in the frontal lobes of the brain and are responsible not just for clarity of thinking, but the ability to solve complex problems” (p. 39).

But purpose and empathy are not just within-organisation factors but part of a bigger movement of understanding increasing complexity and seeking greater well-being at a global scale.


Shifting the narrative 

We’ve long followed the “self-maximisation” narrative where the corporate takes it all as fast as it can and that it’s every man/business for themselves.

Yet, there is a new narrative that shifts us from self-focus towards interdependence: as we are all increasingly faster and more connected, we need to look at the bigger picture and see interdependence as a new key strength.

Understanding and being part of this new narrative does require new skills, such as empathy and focus on both meaning and purpose, and new ways of thinking, which also call into question the assumptions that we are used to operate by.

The success of 21st century leadership will be determined by how fast leaders can respond to change, how they react overall, and whether they are capable of detecting changes (both challenges and opportunities) both inside and outside their organisations.

The digital revolution that we have seen in the information technology, increasing options for both transparency of information and communication and the darker side of its use, are here to stay and will only ramp up in the future.

Yet, the new narrative is really saying that we should and cannot make statistics and tools our sole focus but must bring the human into our decision-making, our emotions and those of others, in a way that can create both deeper reflection and deeper connections.

This shifting narrative on purpose-driven leadership and rehumanizing leadership sits at the core also of questions how we plan to adapt to climate change.

In this process, we would do well to rehumanize adaptation as well so that we are in a better position to create meaningful impacts in people’s lives and enable organisations also to think deeply about uncertainty, complexity and the power of purpose in the era of constant complex change.