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Introduction - The Generation of Transcending Leadership for Transforming Capitalism

Jem BendellIn 2005, another Jem, prettier than me and with a better voice, had a hit singing "who are they, where are they, how could they know all this? I'm sorry, so sorry, I'm sorry we do this". It was about 4 months before I actually paid any attention to the lyrics, such is my low expectation of modern pop. I had thought 'Live 8' was as good as it gets with the social conscience and commentary of our contemporary stars. But the success of singers like Jack Johnson in 2005 suggests that singing about the human condition is back in fashion. One of my favourite tracks of his reflects our complicity in supporting the mass media we experience: "it was you, it was me, it was every man, we've all got the blood on our hands. We only receive what we demand and if hell is what we want, then hell is what we'll have."

This awareness that we co-create the systems we live in, and that we all have a hope, however stifled, to work on what matters for something greater than ourselves, has been at the heart of Lifeworth's agenda since 2001. Achieving a synergy between our 'life' in terms of its true nature and purpose, and our 'worth' in terms of our ability to earn a living, is embodied in the name we chose.

This publication marks our 5th anniversary, and as such provides a broader analysis and prognosis than previous annual reviews. In so doing, it reflects a new confidence of knowledge and purpose within people in some of the business, public policy and academic networks we engage with. This confidence arises from a new sense of urgency, greater experience, and self-discovery.

One reason for the sense of urgency is that environmental problems have fast moved from prediction to reality, while the rate of damage is increasing rapidly with industrialisation in the East. The stubbornness of poverty in the face of numerous international commitments to make a difference, including the Millennium Development Goals, adds to this sense that widespread results must come now.

In addition, the contemporary emphasis and initiative on voluntary corporate responsibility is now a decade old, with 2005 being the 10th anniversary of Ken Saro-Wiwa's execution in Nigeria, which added to the public outcry over the oil company Shell at the time. Participants in and observers of voluntary corporate responsibility initiatives have had some time to understand the potential and limitations of this area. With this experience, the commercial difficulties of making companies and markets more sustainable and responsible are more widely known. As Jules Peck argues in the foreword to this Review, "sophisticated companies are recognising that they cannot shift their business models to more sustainable ones without the support of government, consumers and investors." Whereas this argument used to lead to business people passing the buck, now it is leading them to explore how they may be able to engender that support from government, consumers and investors. They are exploring how to act together to cultivate a business case for sustainable behaviour, in order to create systemic change in society. It is this approach which guides the new strategy of the corporate responsibility team at one of the sponsors of this Annual Review.

Another reason for the new confidence of knowledge and purpose may relate to self-discovery. People who work on corporate responsibility can be regarded as a social movement, and a new profession. As a profession, it is very new, and there are no professional institutes for corporate responsibility practitioners that have the support and participation of large numbers of those practitioners. Professional culture, identity and purpose are still evolving. Many people came from not-for-profit backgrounds, and many started in this field as young professionals. Consequently people have been learning how to act and behave in this new profession, and cautious about expressing themselves fully. They have been on a journey of self-discovery. Now, with some years under their belt, many people have greater confidence in their more fundamental assessments of situations and in expressing their views.

This new confidence is leading to more assertive work that aims at larger transformations of organisations and societies than have been attempted within the corporate responsibility arena in the past. In 2005 a range of activities suggested that more of us are not prepared to merely tinker with the edges of corporations and capitalism and instead will work toward systemic transformations. The growing focus on responsible lobbying responds to the need to reconfigure the relationship between business and government in order for government to intervene for longer-term commercial and societal interests and not be swayed by short-term expediency of certain companies and industries. The greater popularity of concepts such as 'social entrepreneurship' and 'authentic business', reflects the desire of people to work in ways that are good for humanity, rather than merely being less bad. The rapid advances with collective action in the financial sector to change its integration of social and environmental value also reflect a growing desire to change the basic framework conditions that companies and their executives have to operate within. Ultimately this may lead to a fundamental rethinking and eventual reordering of the rights and duties of capital. Certainly the private financial sector looks set to become the focus of more NGO campaigns and projects. We may be on the cusp of a 'capital turn' in civil society that will have as significant effect on business as the 'corporate turn' of civil society in the early 1990s, when NGOs began engaging business more energetically.

Individual people, acting together, are creating these changes. That may seem so obvious, but the implications can be overlooked. One implication is that we need to know the nature and action of such people, to learn from them, to nurture them and to inspire others to become like them. One characteristic is that they are all crossing boundaries, whether organisational or cultural, to try new ways of working to serve wider society. 'Crossing a threshold' is one concept that the etymological study of the origins of the word 'leadership' suggests. 'Marking a path' is another. The topic of leadership is well established in the fields of business and organisational behaviour and therefore provides a useful frame for understanding and communicating the qualities of those who are marking a path towards a sustainable and just society by crossing the thresholds of organisations, industries, countries, cultures and generations.

Traditionally analysts and educators on corporate leadership have assumed that it involves leading people towards the goal of their employer, the company. Mark Gerzon of the Mediators Foundation describes this as a focus on "leadership within borders", when what the world needs is "leaders beyond borders". This means people who can see across borders created by others, such as the borders of their job, and engage others in dialogue and action to address systemic problems. We can call this 'transcending leadership'. It is a form of leadership that transcends the boundaries of ones professional role and the limits of ones own situation to engage people on collective goals. It is a form of leadership that transcends a limited conception of self, as the individual leader identifies with ever-greater wholes. As Albert Einstein wrote, "the human being experiences oneself, ones thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest--a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."3 Ultimately, transcending leadership is a form of action that transcends the need for a single leader, by helping others to transcend their limited states of consciousness and concern and inspire them to also lead for the common good.

Writing about organisational learning and change, Peter Senge argues that to create change in organisational systems requires leadership qualities that arise from an awareness of systems and one's own connectedness to those.4 This is even more the case for the challenge of societal learning and change, as it requires an understanding of inter-organisational relations and whole social, economic, political, economic and cultural processes. Therefore people who move beyond organizational and personal transformations to leading societal transformation are praised as 'Alchemists' by David Rooke and Bill Torbert, in an article for the Harvard Business Review.5

Perhaps the best modern example of transcending leadership is Mohandas Gandhi, who aroused and elevated the hopes and demands of millions of Indians and whose life and personality were enhanced in the process. He called on us to understand our connectedness to 'all that lives', and identify with ever greater wholes.

The transcending leaders of today are not necessarily charismatic figures in positions of institutional authority. There is often a mistaken assumption that leadership is about being a boss. Today's transcending leaders are those who cross boundaries to influence society for the better, and operate at all levels of organisation or none. When I think of people who exhibit these qualities, I do not think of senior people within the United Nations system, with which much of my recent work has been. Instead I think of people like James Gifford, who came to the UN as an intern and quietly developed a responsible investment initiative that is helping shift trillions of dollars of assets behind the sustainability transition. Or Alisa Clarke, who created a network of UN staff and consultants to promote revitalisation and reform of the UN system from the bottom up, by focusing on the importance of personal values in ones profession (see www.wisdomatwork.net). I think of Mike Zeidler, who created an Association of Sustainability Practitioners to support people who seek to transform organisations towards sustainability through their work (see www.asp-online.org/). And I think of Bill Zhang, who has been helping the sustainability movement in China to grow. All are quietly acting for the collective.

In 2005 another transcending leader I had the privilege to know passed away. His achievement in building institutions yet not being very bothered about his or others 'position power', his interest in crossing boundaries and experimenting with the new, and his commitment to social change, made Richard Sandbrook someone I deeply respected. Jonathon Porritt wrote in the Guardian, "the essence of this extraordinary person lay in his irrepressible humanitarianism. Though he loved to poke fun at all and sundry, deliberately cultivating a world-weary scepticism to strip away self-importance and cant wherever he met it Jonathon Porritt (especially among his colleagues), his heart never stopped beating for the world's oppressed."6 The strength of his legacy embodies the ultimate goal of transcending leadership.

Our challenge today is to cultivate these qualities in each other: to learn ways of achieving states of connection, and ways of implementing our compassion. There are skills to learn, experiences to hear about and niches to find. In 2005 a variety of organisations did useful work in this regard. The Oxford Leadership Academy7 and Shambhala Authentic Leadership Institute8 continued to help top executives to tune in to their desire to serve society. The Society for Organisational Learning continued to expand outside the United States and bring more people into a dialogue about systemic change.9 Forum for the Future and LEAD completed their first cross-cultural and cross-sectoral leadership development programme.10 All these initiatives are helping to inspire the leadership needed for global social change.

In business, and particularly in the field of corporate responsibility, transcending leadership translates into engaging all relevant stakeholders in collective action to change market frameworks to make responsible and sustainable enterprise more financially viable. It involves employing those business functions that communicate with stakeholders, such as public affairs, investor relations, human resources, supply chain management, marketing and advertising, in pursuit of systemic change. Recognising that capitalism is the larger system within which we operate, transforming capitalism to a sustainable and just means of socio-economic organising is the key challenge for real business leaders.

Our own work at Lifeworth these past five years focused on this goal of corporate executives playing a role in systemic change. We have pursued it, rather limitedly, through research, strategy and policy advice, writing and educating, especially in the area of cross-sectoral relations and dialogue, as well as through life coaching, and providing career and recruitment consulting in the corporate responsibility field. Our understanding has been that much of the emphasis in the professional services field focuses on the organisation - not on the person within it or the system around it. We believe that the most important work today is both deeply personal and highly systemic. People need to find ways of succeeding in their organisations, by transforming those organisations to succeed in societies, by transforming those societies to succeed in the world. More simply: people need to be able to serve the world while not bankrupting their organisation or getting the sack!

After 5 years we are now planning to take our work to another level. Therefore in 2006 we are co-creating a study circle on "Consciousness, Leadership and Humanity". This circle is open to anyone who seeks to cultivate this ‘transcending leadership’ in their organisation or through their work, and who can contribute substantively to a process of elucidating the principles, purpose, and practices of such leadership, including how to cultivate and sustain it. The project will be open source, with all intellectual outputs made freely available. One output already scheduled is a forthcoming special issue of the Journal of Corporate Citizenship. For further information, visit http://www.transcendingleadership.net/

In any case, I hope you find this Annual Review helpful. It both reviews and embodies the new confidence of a profession and movement that arises out of an awareness of serving something greater than itself. As such it is the first annual review to carry its own title. I hope that 2005 comes to be remembered as a time that began the generation of 'Transcending Leadership for Transforming Capitalism'. Now that would be worth singing about.

3. Quote altered from gender specific language.

4. The Fifth Discipline by Peter M Senge Century Business 1992.

5. "Seven Transformations of Leader", Harvard Business Review, April 2005

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contents Greenleaf Publishing, apart from the Introduction jem bendell, 2006. site by waywardmedia.com