Purpose gives meaning to our lives and leads to happiness when we love others; not when we decimate them for our own convictions, as Hitler did.
While purpose has mostly been talked about on corporate platforms by many leaders, and categorized as something noble or of a higher order, it is, in reality, one of the foundations of humble leadership. It’s possible that other considerations, like profit and shareholder satisfaction, have prevented many corporate leaders from identifying a genuine corporate purpose and pursuing it.
However, my discussions with some leaders have shown that it is not only possible to pursue a purpose but also to ensure shareholder returns in abundance or achieve corporate objectives in a faster and more sensible manner in doing so.
In fact, the leaders I interviewed spoke in a manner that conveyed how important purpose was in their lives—it was their world and their reality too. It is what drove them forward and gave them abundant energy to achieve targets beyond the ability of leaders who did not have such a larger-than-life purpose. That’s why I suggest that humble leaders personify a sense of purpose that is beyond the imagination of ordinary leaders. It should be akin to the purpose of Frankl, who survived brutal torture at concentration camps by helping other prisoners through his logotherapy. Purpose, in this context, becomes a life-giving source for oneself and others!
Another example of good leadership is Paul Polman, whom I interviewed for this book. Paul Polman, the former chief executive officer of Unilever, embodies what we have been referring to as a larger-than-life purpose. He created a business case for corporates to give back to the larger community via the ethical, social, environmental, cultural, and economic dimensions of doing business. During his tenure, Unilever became one of the best-performing companies in its sector, delivering ten years of consistent top and bottom-line growth, and one of the most trusted companies in the world. The Financial Times called him the stand-out CEO of the decade for this achievement.
Polman’s life experiences made him realize the close link between poverty, inequality, and sustainability, but he didn’t look at these problems with a deficit mindset. Rather, he looked at them with an appreciative mindset, which helped him set up the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. Under his leadership, Unilever developed an ambitious vision to decouple its growth from its overall environmental footprint and to increase its overall positive social impact. It was an ambitious plan of responsible growth that changed the trajectory of the company.
‘During the ten years as CEO in Unilever, we built a strong purpose-driven business model. Drawing from the roots of the company our purpose became “making sustainable living commonplace”. It was built on the premise that a multi-stakeholder, long-term-focused business model with its roots in a sustainable development goal could be a successful and profitable model for the shareholders as well,’ he said.
It ultimately resulted in an attractive 300 percent shareholder return over the ten-year period, an outperformance of its major competitive set. ‘The underlying goal was to address the world’s challenges as embedded in the sustainable development goal and turn them into big opportunities, rather than keep a myopic focus on shareholder returns, which still seems the dominant model.’ Polman said. ‘We are here not for ourselves. We are here for a broader reason, and as such we must put ourselves in the service of others. Indeed, the moment you realize that it’s not about yourself, you can become a great leader.’
In his new book Net Positive, Polman talks about businesses profiting from solving the world’s problems, not from creating them.
Focusing on optimizing the return for all our stakeholders was not a trade-off for me, it was the responsibility we had towards all that helped in the value creation. Our employees, our partners in the value chain, the communities in which we lived and worked, broader society, and yes even the planet and future generations…
Making our purpose come alive increased the employer brand, employee engagement, and resilience in our value chain and ultimately made us more innovative and successful…
Yes, some of the challenges like food security, climate change, and inequality are tough to tackle alone, that’s why we increasingly forced broader partnerships with our stakeholders. This could only be done based on the most important currency, trust, which is not given but earned by one’s commitments and behavior…
When things got tough or seemed impossible, our strong mission or purpose to literally leave no one behind kept us going. For us, cutting food waste in the value chain was not a cost-cutting exercise. It was to ensure that the 826 million people who still go to bed hungry, not knowing if they wake up the next day got food, talk about unleashing energy…
When I feel sorry for myself, I often think about the thousands of visually impaired children we serve with our foundation (https://Kilimanjaroblindtrust.org/) in seven countries in East Africa. Hearing their aspirations to become teachers to improve the education for the blind or doctors to help prevent blindness keeps you humble and counts your blessings. You are reminded that you have no right to complain, be judgmental, or be frustrated if other people you serve find themselves in situations that are significantly worse.
Polman has created a larger-than-life purpose for himself—perhaps for his entire family and beyond them too. His appreciative mindset, through his corporate years and well after, has made him see the strengths large business houses derive from maximizing their impact on communities.
This excerpt is taken from the book The Power of Humility: How Humble High Achievers Are Rewriting the Rules of Leadership from HarperCollins Publishers India and the Author PV Ramana Murthy.