Leadership in a Time of Change: Embracing Purpose, Character, and Collective Power for a World in Flux”

I believe we live in a time like no other. A time with societal and environmental issues that will collide and create issues we have never dealt with in the history of our planet. But you already know this.

We also live in a time of growing consciousness. A time where people are seeking purpose and meaning – not just in their personal beliefs but also demanding it as part of their work life. Good news in a time dominated with way too much bad news.

I have been a student of purpose for many years. Working in startups, corporates, and more recently as the Author of On Purpose published by Wiley (available from Dymocks or Audible). What I have learned is knowing your why – your reason to exist – your purpose is vital. But it alone is not enough. You also need strength of character. You need to know what you stand for, what you will stand by and what you stand with. Your ethics and virtues must be your compass and your rock.

Why is this so important – shouldn’t having a clear purpose be enough? Without a moral compass that never deviates from your true north it is way too easy to rationalize a new truth. We see this all the time. How do good people end up in bad places? How do great companies bury reports about products they know cause cancer? Ignore information from whistle blowers? Allow software to be developed to switch emissions so they can pass environmental tests?

The general assumption is that the people who let this happen are bad people without character, without virtues. Driven by power, money and ego. If it was that simple we could just look for the bad people and solve for that. What I have come to know is that good people can easily end up in bad situations. Without knowing they are rationalizing a new truth – a truth that somehow someone redefines as possibly not being so bad. Perhaps we rationalize that getting cars on the road with substandard emissions is okay because we are employing so many people and paying dividends that fund retirees’ lives? Could this be sold over time as being okay?

Strength of character and accepting that you are the leader of your own life must be the starting point, otherwise your purpose – your why – is simply sitting on quick sand. You could be sold a new truth. You and only you are accountable.

This is why we must challenge and change the way we define leadership. Put simply and told so many times – we are all leaders. It will be this mindset that solves the seemingly intractable issues facing our world.

I would like to share an extract from my book, On Purpose, that speaks to this idea.


Power made by many

Traditional models of leadership are changing. The changes may not have taken hold in every corporation, but they certainly have in fast-growing start-ups. In these nimble worlds, hierarchy is architecture, not a reporting line.

In ‘Understanding “New Power”’, an article published by Harvard Business Review, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms provide an interesting perspective on these shifts, powered by ones and zeroes.

Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures.

New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.

Weaving old and new power together through a common thread of purpose emboldens everyone, averting a collision course of any potentially misguided, individual intentions.

Could it be that modern neuroscience powered by technology is helping everyone rise above circumstance? As Jung put it, ‘I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become’.

As discussed in Otto Scharmer’s book Theory U, the Indo-European root of the verb ‘to lead’ is ‘leith’—to step across a threshold and let go of whatever might limit us stepping forward. If we can let go, step forward and choose to do this, we can all be the leaders of our own lives.

With this mindset of personal leadership, organisation-wide leadership becomes possible when unified by purpose and values. Perhaps if everyone saw themselves as leaders there would be shifts in the world to solve the intractable?

Awaken to the leader inside you, and help everyone else awaken to theirs. Leaders come from anywhere and everywhere — from the streets of New York City to the villages of rural India. You will most certainly have followers and followship (people taking your lead), you just might not be aware of it.

We are the leaders of our lives.

So, what does a world look like when everyone sees themselves as the leaders of their lives?

When you awaken from within and become responsible and accountable as your own life’s leader, you are the main character in your story: you are writing the plot. If everyone is encouraged to have this mindset in an organisation led by a unifying, meaningful purpose, the right ingredients are there for everyone to flourish together.

So what goes wrong? Let’s start at the top. The extreme example looks like an old-power leadership model with misguided leaders at the helm, eroding and potentially crushing the human spirit. Somewhere in the middle lies the compromised, materialising as mediocrity, hubris and cynicism. These are the cracks that eventually create the gaps that land us in all sorts of troubled water.

If we are trying to move to the new power ‘made by many’ model we need leaders who are epiphytes rather than parasites—where your means is not their end. In nature there are parasites capable of changing the social behaviour of their hosts at both an individual and group interaction level! When people are connecting with the purpose, they will not feel, nor be, a means to an end. The idea of ‘a leader’, one hero that saves the day, will not work for the knowledge worker. Our knowledge workers seek purpose, mastery and autonomy.

Co-creating leadership

Our leaders need to define purpose, frame vision, develop strategy and engender the character — the values and principles — required to execute. They need to live the values and principles; move away from reaction and towards co-creation. At the same time they need to manage — sometimes ruthlessly — the hard truths underlying today’s problems before any purpose can be realised.

Great leaders operate at a visceral level. They are in the trenches, they are experiencing their customers’ touch points, they are meeting their stakeholders, and they are literally learning at the feet of those who struggle the most.

Before you make the policies, experience the practices within them. That working parent policy? Try getting the bus to childcare for an 8.30 am drop-off before a 9 am meeting, and see whether there needs to be more humanity throughout the organisation, to reflect your purpose. Or it may be about ensuring that diversity is more than a buzzword, that it is experienced rather than just talked about. Whatever it is, experience the policies you are looking to implement on a real-life, meaningful level, so that you can walk a day in the shoes of those you are wanting to engage.

Here are some simple leadership steps to start with:

  • Define your purpose and get on-purpose. Purpose precedes everything — from accountability to measures. Form follows function.
  • Know who you need to be to lead on-purpose.
  • Find leaders who espouse the values and principles of your purpose — people who know themselves, their purpose and their values.
  • Engender the collective.
  • Embed and infuse purpose in your PLOT; that is, in everything you do — strategically, operationally and technically. Inspect what you expect.
  • Celebrate the past, present and future: celebrate, measure, reflect, calibrate, integrate and, just as importantly, celebrate again! (Never underestimate the importance of small acts of recognition. There’s no need to wait for the awards night: see figure 3.1.)


So here we are in a world where we are staring down the barrel of some pretty scary leadership. Let’s step up, become the leaders of our own lives, vote with our feet, and make sure we are living our life on purpose with strength in our character that cannot be rocked or rationalized. Stand strong and tall as the ride ahead is rocky. Know the rock you stand on and make sure you lead every day of your life. Decision by decision. Choice by choice. Purchase by purchase. And of course, vote by vote.

Strap in and hold on tight as the next twenty years are going to be a ride like no other.

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