This second installment in BSR’s ongoing series on the four dimensions of “redefining leadership” in today’s world looks at the importance of learning from the margins.
When I was researching my book Sustainable Excellence, Nike CEO Mark Parker told me that he manages by the principle that “there are a lot of smart people in the world, and most of them don’t work for me.” And while Parker is duly proud of the people he does have at Nike, he points to a central truth: Valuable insight and knowledge is now held in more hands than at any other time in human history.
As we consider how leadership is changing, it is clear that today’s most effective leaders have the ability—and willingness—to listen to weak voices they never would have considered relevant to their business a generation ago. Indeed, these people are able to see across multiple disciplines, perspectives, and geographies.
Leadership used to be demonstrated by people (usually men) who had a corner on information, and who would speak with unshakeable authority. Those leaders were expected to have all the answers; today, they lead through their ability to find all the answers. As Stewart Brand famously said, “information wants to be free.” In such a world, leaders lead through insight, not by owning information.
More recently, company leaders have tried to understand the world through different eyes by focusing on “engagement” with NGOs. But today, NGOs are no longer the gatekeepers of public opinion, any more than daily newspapers are the gatekeepers of information.
In this context, the resilience of business strategies depends on the degree to which company leaders look in unfamiliar places for insights, answers, and technical expertise.
A case in point is the consumer products sector, which is struggling to balance sluggish economies, consumers empowered by technology as never before, and the need to achieve greater sustainability.. Next week, the World Economic Forum will publish a paper I co-drafted on the “weak signals” that have the potential to change this industry in the next several years. But topics like the quantified self, collaborative consumption, and the “internet of things” are not widely known and are part of only a few business strategies today. Understanding where things go next is a form of social R&D that will allow consumer products companies to see risks they don’t appreciate currently.
It’s often the case with sustainability, as with many things, that changes seem inevitable only in hindsight. More than 10 years ago, I spoke with Human Rights Watch about the importance of protecting free expression on the internet. But it was not until several years later that the topic erupted into public view, taking many by surprise.
Similarly, over the next several years, issues like privacy and bioethics will become more important and complex. And the ongoing search for energy and natural resources will lead us into even more environmentally and politically sensitive areas, from the Arctic to Afghanistan. This will likely play out in the context of frayed social contracts in developed economies, with economic stagnation magnifying generational conflict between aging baby boomers seeking to preserve their future and 20-somethings looking to get out of the starting gate.
But that’s not to say that these changes can’t be predicted. With the right networks, and by asking the right questions, leaders can avoid being caught off guard. The question, then, is how to identify tomorrow’s voices.
It’s possible to find these influential thinkers by anticipating future issues and avoiding the temptation to fall back on familiar stakeholders. Organizations like the Institute for the Future (full disclosure: I serve on its board), which looks at emerging technology issues, as well as groups like the Harvard’s Open Net Initiative, which gauges government censorship of the internet, will rise in importance. Companies that have struggled to develop constructive dialogue in remote or unfamiliar locations will need to up their game in even less environments: Who speaks for the Arctic? And in economics, it is possible that trade unions could make a comeback, or that new organizations will arise to help shape 21st century economic equity questions? What seems clear is that those who shaped the last quarter century will not automatically play the same role in the next quarter century.
Like they said on the television show X-Files, “The truth is out there.” But you have to make a point of looking for it at the margins.