The Key Ingredients of For-Purpose Leadership

Michele Ernsting
Article by: Michele Ernsting
The Key Ingredients of For-Purpose Leadership

It’s not often that we get a chance in the for-purpose sector to discuss leadership. In fact, leadership development is a much needed but rarely budgeted activity in the sector. This was one of the key learnings of the Knowledge Festival that THNK hosted with Oxford HR, a global consultancy dedicated to finding and supporting world-changing leaders.

At a time when global challenges loom larger than ever, we invited leaders from across the for-purpose sector to come together in Amsterdam to get a better understanding of what it takes to lead effectively in an unpredictable world, and explore how to develop leadership in yourself and your teams.



The challenges facing for-purpose leaders

The starting point for the discussion was a piece of research based on the experience of for-purpose leaders, mainly based in Europe. Researcher Hannah Postma took us through the challenges most often noted by leaders, which includes the influence of shifting contexts, such as climate change and political instability. Two movements around diversity, equity and inclusion and #shiftthepower also greatly influenced decisions within many organizations.

In her research, Hannah explained that leaders respond to these strategic challenges with their own personal practices and approaches. The key “ingredients” research participants identified as essential for effective leadership include self-awareness, authenticity, vision, empathy, vulnerability and inclusivity. Vision was the ingredient most often cited by interviewees. When asked to choose which ingredient which most resonated for leaders at the festival, many gathered around self-awareness and vulnerability. “Self awareness is the foundation upon which you develop the others,” participant Tessa Wernink noted.

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Why for-purpose leaders struggle with leadership development

How can you develop these ingredients in yourself? One of the key pitfalls for leaders in the for-purpose sector is hidden in the name. The “purpose” of the organization often overrides a leader’s personal purpose. The mission is prioritized over the need to develop leadership skills to better carry out that mission. This was also addressed as something which leads to a high level of burnout in the sector.

In order to develop more diverse leadership experiences and skills, a number of organizations are considering a co-leadership model. Many more organizations are entering into strategic partnerships where collective leadership is crucial. Sobhi Khatib of Oxford HR invited participants to prototype the experience of co-leadership by collaborating to create a lego structure.

Co-leadership can build diversity and creativity

Apart from the learning that you need to get to the Lego box fast to get the best pieces, a number of other insights emerged: You go faster when you start by co-creating a strong vision; clear roles are crucial; and even when you agree that you will share power, a hierarchy can still emerge based on experience or the resources you have access to.

Many leaders in the room shared that their organizations were in the process of shifting leadership from northern Europe to other regions, or were redefining their missions in order to  remain relevant in the changing context. These are deep transformations.

“For-purpose leadership is about bringing people together to rally around a collective vision.”  Femke Bartels led a session with leaders to help them recognize how they can support their staff during deep transitions. “Change can cause feelings of resistance, fear and a sense of loss. These feelings need to be acknowledged in order to create trust for new ways of being and doing to emerge.”

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Prioritize relationships over processes

Participant Mandy van Deven also pointed to the need to prioritize relationships over processes. “The relationships we have cultivated keep us grounded in moments of instability. In the midst of a transition, the community of people around us provide care, resources, and support we need to move through it.” This approach requires an ability to listen deeply to team members, something which is especially crucial if your team is from different cultures and contexts. Leaders can also support teams by paying as much attention to what is going well rather than mainly focusing on what is going wrong.

The Knowledge Festival provided an opening and an oasis to explore the leadership challenges in the for-purpose sector. Oxford HR will share the full research paper in January. If you would like to continue the conversation with us, or find out how you can develop leadership in yourself or your organization, get in touch.