Why We Need Agile Servant Leaders

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Published in January 2014.


Published in January 2014.

“The world is changing,” we hear. Innovation is accelerating. The world is warming. Oil reserves are dangerously slowing. Absolute poverty is being reduced. Wall Street is back with profits as high as before the global financial crisis. But do world leaders have the big picture and a good understanding of the world we live in?

Gilbert Probst, a managing director at the World Economic Forum, and Andrea Bassi, a consultant and researcher in green growth policymaking using systems analysis, address this question in their newly released book, “Tackling Complexity.” The book analyzes the conceptual mistakes business and political leaders make in dealing with complex issues and aims to provide these leaders with the appropriate tools to face such situations.

In a recent interview, Probst discusses the reasons why and how growing complexity requires us to change the way we tackle decision making.

SR: What inspired you to write about complexity?

Probst: I have a background in systemic thinking and systemic problem solving. I’ve always published and taught about how to solve complex problems from a business perceptive. At the World Economic Forum, I am involved in all the global risks and big world problems, which are all extremely complex. My motivation was to combine my two worlds of being a professor dealing with business issues and being at the forum dealing with public private partnerships and getting all stakeholders involved together.

What is the big lesson you want your readers to take away from “Tackling Complexity”?

The big lesson is really to be aware of the complexity as a phenomenon, to respect complexity and, based on that, to know how to identify the problem to include all stakeholders and to model a systemic picture of the situation.

In your book, we find plenty of examples about successes and failures in tackling sustainability issues. Is this book about tackling sustainability as much as it is about tackling complexity? Why?

It is about how to handle complex issues. The best example is actually in a post I recently saw in [Unilever CEO] Paul Polman’s blog on The Huffington Post. It clearly shows that not a country, not the society alone, not an industry, not a sector can solve these problems alone. In a company like Unilever, they strive for a sustainable-living plan in their strategy, looking at what is their role in the world and in the market. Yes, it is also about sustainability, but I never called it sustainability. Many people who saw the book before publication—Paul Polman, Dominic Burton, Klaus Schwab and all others—gave me the conviction that I should publish it in the context of sustainability.

You suggest five tools to tackle complex issues. What do you think we’re missing to tackle efficiently complex issues now?

I think that leaders often are lost in complexity. So if you are lost, you focus on one little thing where you know a lot. When you cannot take the system as the whole, you think you better take the problem from the perspective you know best. But you are never solving the complex problems. That’s why Paul Polman wrote “It’s Time for Business to Earn a License to Lead.” What he said is that leaders have to lead differently. They have to know how to handle such a complex situation. The terminology I use is “agile servant leader.” It is about being a servant, a servant of society, a servant to your team … and it’s about agility to adapt to the situation where dynamics change all the time. Before, it was about how I have to be prepared to deal with different groups of interest. Today, leaders really have to learn how to seriously integrate stakeholders, how to collaborate, how to understand the complexity. It is what I expect from leaders today.

How do you inspire leaders to care about the systemic thinking and think long term when they create their management strategies?

This is difficult. Sometimes including the stakeholders seems like a lip service, because at the end, the ones who assess you are your colleagues. It is true for teaching too or for an academic career. You better have a strict, narrow view on finance, marketing or organization theory, which doesn’t permit you to really have a systemic thinking…. You either inspire people by stretching goals or by burning platforms. For that, you have different tools, like the salary system, the bonus system and the achievement measurement system. As long as you measure how much you sold per month, we would not have a big change. You would just sell at any price.

Paul Polman tries to provide an alternate path of thinking at Unilever. He said we are not here to talk about the number of sells but to measure how we are improving our environment and how we are creating value for society. You can see a lot of organizations which do more thinking in that sense and don’t care if they name it sustainable thinking or not. Professor [Peter] Gomez [ex-chairman of the Swiss Stock Exchange and ex-dean of the University of St. Gallen] and I worked on an article illustrating the fact that there is a new way of doing business. The title is “Creating Societal Benefits and Corporate Profits.” We were engaging companies to think about how to create this understanding and to inspire leaders. The goal is really to demonstrate that you are a better leader when you do good deeds.

It seems like living in a more complex world, young people develop a stronger opportunistic behavior. What’s your take on that?

I don’t think that they are more opportunistic. I see something else. When I was at Wharton, nobody may have thought about going to join the WEF or to the World Bank, to an NGO or to a social enterprise. It was not a topic. We didn’t even discuss it. Now there are 20 to 30 percent who go for a job, after their MBA program, for these organizations. If you look at how the MBA teaching is changing, it is interesting. Topics such as social entrepreneurship were never a topic. Now it is. INSEAD, London Business School, Harvard, they all tell me the same. My generation wouldn’t have thought to go to Harvard for a MBA and go after to the WEF or an NGO. It is interesting. The attitudes have changed. INSEAD, LBS, everybody reports it. This generation now looks for different jobs. Or let’s say 30 percent, at least, look for different jobs.

Do you believe that young people are better educated to face a world more and more complex? Could this book help them?

I am not sure that they are better educated. We are technically well educated, yes. But I still think that the world hasn’t started to think about collaborations and public-private partnerships. I think that our world is still thinking in shares. I see there a real gap. You know, you don’t change the system overnight. It is difficult for the young generation to understand and to deal with ambiguity. But I think that they are more caring. At the WEF, we have a big community called the Global Shapers, from 20 to 30 years old. What I see there is amazing. People who do things that, when I was 25 years old, I would never have thought, like creating a social enterprise or taking actions with the government. And you see this worldwide.

But it is true. A lot of young people want to be safe, they want to take less risk, and they want to be prepared. But I think that there is also caring. It is difficult to deal with that. But the attraction has changed. It is not mainstream, but it is a strong movement.

To conclude, what was the reaction you received after the publication of “Tackling Complexity”?

Of course, Paul Polman and many you can see at the back of the book gave me great feedback. I get even the request to publish the book in Indonesian [Bahasa Indonesia], so obviously it will be given to all public figures there and also in the Philippines, where Andrea [Bassi, co-author of “Tackling Complexity”) works. So yes, there is a great reaction so far.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited for clarity.

Featured image source: flickr / Jaybird under Creative Commons.

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