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In an excerpt from their book Net Positive, Paul Polman and Andrew Winston reveal how you can find the willpower and courage to step outside your comfort zone and become a net positive leader.

Countless books, classes, and business school cases have explored leadership. We’ve long tried to distil what makes someone worthy of being followed. And that applies to all people, not just CEOs. Many people sit atop some kind of pyramid in an organisation, managing or influencing others to work toward a goal. People can lead and inspire from many places.

No matter the level, there are evergreen leadership skills that were important fifty years ago, and will be fifty years from now. Effective leaders share traits, such as discipline, toughness and holding people to high standards, strategic thinking, intelligence, curiosity, and a desire to understand key drivers of a business like technology. In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world, other traits, in particular adaptability and resilience, become critical as well.

But leading a net positive business takes more than the basics. The best leaders, the ones people will want to follow into this new territory, are first and foremost good human beings. They are at ease with themselves, have integrity, and what they say and what they do are in sync. Net positive leadership is also about putting others’ interests ahead of your own. It helps to know your own strengths and passions as well. The sweet spot is leading in the overlap of what you’re good at, what you like, and what the world needs. Getting there might require developing new skills and leaving your comfort zone.

We see five critical traits that help create a net positive leader:

1. A sense of purpose, duty, and service

As many have noted, passion is about finding yourself, but purpose is about losing yourself in something bigger than you. We can follow our interests into hobbies or do work that we love. Many of us find passion and build successful careers that we enjoy. But not everyone finds purpose at work. True fulfilment comes not only from doing what you enjoy, but also serving a bigger mission and touching the lives of others in meaningful ways. It’s about wanting to make a difference – to help, to give, to serve. A sense of personal duty is the path to unlocking more potential and being bigger than yourself. It lays the foundation for building purposeful brands and net positive companies.

2. Empathy: a high level of compassion, humility, and humanity

Leaders today need to see others as human beings not “human doings” and value what everyone brings to the table. They should cultivate empathy and compassion, even if it’s uncomfortable. As the former CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, Jostein Solheim, says, “If you don’t feel the pain that we’re inflicting on Mother Nature, or empathise with the deep anxiety and fear that a Black person feels in America … you can’t run a sustainable business.”

3. More courage

All five attributes of net positive leaders are important and reinforce one another, but courage rules them all. Poet Maya Angelou captured it best: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” The word courage comes from Latin and an Old French word corage, meaning “heart”. Taking a hard stand requires both the head – the logic and the “why” – and heart. Empathy and a sense of purpose give you courage to make decisions you wouldn’t otherwise, to go the extra mile, and to push through the discomfort. If you’re not uneasy, you’re not going far enough.

4. The ability to inspire and show moral leadership

A leader’s responsibility is ultimately about inspiring and uniting people behind a common purpose. It’s not just about giving energy, but unleashing it. It’s the ability to motivate and mentor others to higher levels of performance, and helping them both find their own clear sense of direction and figure out how to express that purpose. Or as Bill George (one of Paul’s mentors) said, help people find their true north so they can become “genuine and authentic” leaders. George also worked to show employees the good their work did in the world. When he was CEO of Medtronic, he would regularly invite in people to talk to employees about how a Medtronic pacemaker saved their life.

5. Seeking transformative partnership

A net positive company treats everyone as worthy of respect and partnership. Shifting entire value chains means not just pressuring suppliers to do better, but innovating with suppliers to rethink how products and services are delivered. Finally, the system won’t shift without the right policy changes, which means creating open, productive partnerships with governments.

The world needs leaders who are the opposite of the old “company man” who coldly maximises profits, and who instead embrace being more vulnerable, open, caring, empathetic, and human. Organisations should strive for those traits as well. The obsession with shareholder value has turned businesses into soulless money machines. It’s all numbers, statistics, and profits. Companies have become robotic, valuing only contractual relationships instead of open, trusting partnerships (neither of us are big fans of contracts – we’re writing this book together on a handshake).

Businesses rejected the balance of ethics that Adam Smith talked about in favour of pure efficiency. As Oxford business professor Colin Meyer says in his book Prosperity, the humans in the equation have been replaced with “anonymous markets and shareholders over whom we have no control”. We’ve all done a good job of divorcing our personal selves from work life, but at a high cost. We believe that a business is and should be human, with real people serving the needs of other real people. If we start with people as the core of business – not with the pursuit of short-term profits – then the first step in building a more human business is to look inward to find the strength to change how business works.

A company can only head toward net positive if it has leaders courageous enough to challenge business as usual – leaders who understand that profit should come not from creating the world’s problems, but from solving them. How can we keep earning when the world is burning? The solutions to many of our challenges are available, and there’s plenty of capital to invest. What’s stopping us? Part of the answer is that resistance is high, from both inertia and vested interests.

So, finally, leaders need determination to fight through the roadblocks. Willpower comes from cultivating net positive leadership principles, such as purpose, humility, and courage. Underlying those traits, basic human values can be our guide and foundation of a new kind of leadership: justice, compassion, dignity, and respect – it’s the Golden Rule again. When you know what the right thing to do is, you’ll find the courage to take a stand.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take. Copyright 2021 Paul Polman and Andrew S Winston. All rights reserved.
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