Profitability and service-oriented leadership, in the mould of Nelson Mandela or Gandhi, are not mutually exclusive, argues Prof Walter Baets. If we are to build a sustainable economy, he says, introspective and ethical leadership is the way to go.
Viktor Frankl's account of his painstaking work to rebuild his life after the trauma of being held captive in a concentration camp has gripped philosophers, academics and ordinary people in search of purpose for decades. It is what it says on the cover: Man's Search for Meaning.
Frankl was grappling with what is increasingly preoccupying forward-thinking business leaders; those who are beginning to understand that as business becomes ever more competitive, it is not enough simply to be faster, better, cheaper; we also need to think bigger. That is, to really think bigger – not just literally, in terms of expansion, but holistically, in terms of purpose.
Of course, the spiritual leadership movement is not new. It emerged as early as the 1920s and has steadily gained traction. But over the decades, it has also evolved, changed and splintered.
Spiritual leadership searches for congruency between the world of work and the community from which workers live and move and have their being; it allows the whole person, respectfully, into the working environment. It locates profitability on a continuum with people and care of the planet from which business derives its profitability. The issues at stake may sound abstract, but really, the purpose of spiritual leadership is ultimately very concrete. The success of every aspect of business depends on a search for meaning. If a product or service does not offer meaning, or does not add to the purpose of the consumer's life, it has a limited shelf life.
“Whenever people come into the course I lecture, the first thing the executives ask me is: 'Am I going to lose profitability?' says Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, who teaches a module on spiritual leadership on the executive education short course – Creating and Leading the Value-Driven Organisation – at the GSB. “They say, 'we care about values, but we are here for the bottom line.' Fortunately, these things are not mutually exclusive. We are all searching for meaning. We are all looking for dignity.”
Consider the words of technologist, Stafford Masie, when contemplating the success of Steve Jobs: “He always understood that it was not a technology story, it was a human story. He succeeded because he understood human nature,” Masie said during a recent address at the GSB. Jobs' products worked because he understood human needs, and spoke to them. What he produced had meaning for people.
The second aspect at play is within the workplace itself. As the global business environment becomes more competitive, it is a simple fact that businesses cannot retain their edge if they are unable to retain the best talent in their industry. If companies are failing to offer their employees opportunities for personal growth; if leadership is disrespectful, employees have ample opportunity to seek greener pastures.
According to Archbishop Makgoba, spiritual leadership can play a significant role in fostering higher levels of staff retention. For the archbishop, a core element of spiritual leadership is to serve, not to put oneself first, following the leadership model of Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Pope Francis and the musical guru Hayden. The leader facilitates greatness, and is in this way the very heartbeat of the organisation.
Yet, interestingly, a South African workplace survey conducted by Deloitte in 2014 revealed that 60% of companies named leadership gaps as their biggest challenge and 89% described the issue as urgent and important. Somewhere, leadership is missing something. Could this kind of introspective, service-oriented leadership be it?
It may well be, as employees become more empowered to follow their passions and insist on opportunities for growth and respect. According to a 2013 Bersin/Deloitte report titled Source Predictions for 2014: Building a Strong Talent Pipeline for The Global Economic Recovery, “As the economy picks up, people will start changing jobs. Social recruiting tools (like LinkedIn, Twitter, Glassdoor and Facebook) make it easy to find new opportunities, so companies have to shift their focus towards retention.” And that will include making sure they find greater meaning in their work.
The retention of fully engaged, passionate, purposeful staff is no small advantage. Statistically, companies that increase their number of talented managers and double the rate of engaged employees achieve, on average, 147% higher earnings per share than their competition (Gallup); 33% of senior leaders believe employee loyalty has a direct relationship to profits and highly engaged employees are 2.5 times more likely to stay at work late if something needs to be done after the normal workday ends and more than three times as likely to do something good for the company that is not expected of them.
All of that said, however, the irony is that to embark on a path of spiritual leadership in order to increase profits is counter-productive, says Makgoba. As Frankl famously said: “Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it.”
The archbishop's intention is not to do a hard sell on the profitability of spirituality, but merely to illustrate that profitability and spiritual leadership are not mutually exclusive. “I'm very conscious not to use spirituality as a commodity,” he says. “That will make it irrelevant soon. Spiritual leadership is much more than that. It is about all of us, executives and workers, searching for something greater than ourselves, a legacy that can make a connection within ourselves – a connection as human beings, in a working environment.”
This connection can, of course, be especially advantageous in an environment like South Africa, where the triple burden of poverty, inequality and unemployment continues to plague society and where labour unrest is no small challenge. In this environment, it is essential that we begin to connect on a human level – and that our negotiations begin to take on an altogether more connected, respectful character. This is what Makgoba calls “narrative” negotiation, arguably an allusion to the fact that it is allowed to develop organically, and that everybody's story is heard. At any rate, it is going beyond technocratic negotiation into an altogether more level playing field – one that South Africa so desperately needs if the economy is to stabilise.
Given all this, the question then is can leaders afford not to look inward?
Watch the GSB video about Creating and Leading the Values-Driven Organisation:
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