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30 November 2017

Empathy Creates Breakthroughs, Not Breakdowns

You may recall earlier this year I was invited to meet and interview Simon Sinek, author of Start with WhyLeaders Eat Last and Together is Better. It was a completely off-grid and informal encounter in Melbourne that afforded me a rare glimpse into the life of a man who has inspired countless people and organisations to find their why.

I wanted to dive deeper into the context of our meeting, which anchored quickly around the radical reimagining of corporate culture, namely that the best organisations (whether for-profit or not-for-profit) lead with empathy and function like social movements—agile, decentralised, community-centric—mobilising people and resources for a higher purpose than profit. Of particular note was our shared views on why organisations fail so badly at culture change and the responsibility of leaders to create workplaces that authentically inspire connection and belonging.

Abandon legacy systems that are bad for business and people

More than at any other time in our history we have the opportunity to devise a new operating model that makes work productive, fulfilling, and meaningful—soulful workplaces where talents can blossom and where individual calling and connection with purpose can be honoured. As Simon points out in his Why Leaders Eat Lastpresentation—we are suffering from legacy systems and practices from 20 and 30 years ago that are bad for business and bad for people. Contemplate that for a moment…

Here’s the thing: without a conscious commitment to reimagine culture and willingness to abandon those legacy systems and practices, realising a purpose-driven culture is near impossible. Hence, one of the most significant challenges for institutional leaders, people whose skills were wrought in a top-down, command-and-control business era, is to learn how to lead and thrive in-between what is known and comfortable and what is unknown and revealed. It requires soft skills like empathy, enquiry and reflection—skills many of today’s leaders are not fluent in (and therefore struggle to nurture these attributes in their people). The impact? Instead of change being an aspirational and purpose-driven quest it is more often met with pain, fear and resistance. And for the vast majority of leaders tasked to lead change it feels like pushing sh%t uphill.

Having a corporate social responsibility program does not make you a purpose-driven company.

These challenges shine a spotlight on the long-term inefficacy of traditional corporate responsibility and shared-value models. Amidst all of the inertia and angst, what’s become increasingly clear is that lean operations, collaboration and good intent is not enough to get people and organisations where they need to be. The great news is that the X-factor you seek may not be as obscure or unattainable as it might seem.

How does empathy manifest in and through your leadership?

For Seventh Generation, a company who manufactures seemingly unexciting household goods like dish soap and laundry products, every product they sell is imbued with empathy—a higher purpose to “inspire a consumer revolution that nurtures the health of the next seven generations”.

Empathy is the crucial element in an organisations quest to inspire human connection. Purpose is its compass for transformation and growth.

Be it investing in local or global communities or changing how people shop for the products and services they buy—having a clear and enduring purpose ensures the people your organisation exists to serve remain at the forefront of its focus.

Let’s look at the higher purpose of other well-known companies:

Microsoft: “To enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential.”

Patagonia: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Nike: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”… “If you have a body, you are an athlete.”

Identify your purpose, then make it real

To get a sense of your organisation’s higher purpose, explore the following:

  • When you are performing at your best, what are you doing?
  • What are the most interesting transformational opportunities that you are aware of, or could initiate?
  • Is there a complex social issue that can be solved through the daily operation of your business?
  • How can you create more impact in more places and people’s live, more completely?

Let me know what you discover?

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