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Leaders provide meaning

By Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

Talking with Stew Friedman, a professor at Wharton, we told him we’d been struck by the powerful strain of optimism in his work. ‘Well, I’m glad that you picked that up,’ he replied, ‘because that is, to me, the hallmark of what leaders have to do; to convert the harsh realities of today into a hopeful path to make the world a little better. It is about looking at reality as clearly as you can and then, creatively, and in concert with other people, trying to figure out ways to improve the human condition.’

Leadership and progress are not one and the same, but they are so closely adjacent to mean that separating them would take clinical expertise. As Peter Drucker, the father of management thinking, famously observed, ‘money is a by-product’ of creating value and it is value which fuels progress in business and society.

‘When you find your real purpose, you can pursue it with passion,’ advises Unilever CEO Paul Polman.

‘Leadership is about results,’ says London Business School’s Rob Goffee. ‘It has to be. Great leadership has the potential to excite people to extraordinary levels of achievement. But it is not only about performance; it is also about meaning. This is an important point – and one that is often overlooked. Leaders at all levels make a difference to performance. They do so because they make performance meaningful.

‘And the quest for meaning is increasingly important to societies and individuals. As the pace of change increases, individuals are ever more motivated to search for constancy and meaning. We’ve become increasingly suspicious of a world dominated by the mere role player.’

For Vineet Nayar of the Indian tech company HCL, faith-based organizations remain an inspiration. He envies their unifying sense of purpose. HCL has championed an emphasis on ‘employees first’ (also the title of Nayar’s bestselling book). ‘Employees First energized the corporation. It made management accountable,’ he says. ‘But, today is what matters. Here and now. The human mind is not built for the past. The whole legacy thing is crap.’ Belief is everything. Belief can change the world.

But meaning is about more than money. Take the design company IDEO. We have interviewed a variety of IDEO employees over the last decade, yet have never heard any mention of the usual corporate yardsticks – profits, ROI, market share. ‘The business thing has always been an outcome of doing everything else we want to do rather than a sense of purpose in itself. If you’re going to make a place good for creative people to come to, you don’t make that a place that talks about business and money all the time,’ IDEO CEO Tim Brown told us when we met in London:

Creative people want to have an impact, they want to see their ideas out in the world making a difference to people, because that’s why they went into the things that they do in the first place. Now that can include improving a business, absolutely, and nearly always does in fact. But in terms of our own business, we do good work, and we’re constantly thinking about how what we do might evolve, and figuring out how to be as impactful as possible. The business seems to take care of itself.

Meaning leads to profits, not vice versa.

Visit the gleaming headquarters of the Japanese company Fujitsu in central Tokyo and the point is made abundantly, repeatedly and uncompromisingly clear. Technology exists – and matters – in order to make the world a better place. Societal and human improvement relies on technology. And so a technology company should be measured by the improvements in the world it brings about rather than the novelty value of its products, or simply its financial value.

Fujitsu is the world’s fourth-largest IT services provider and number one in Japan. It talks about creating value through the integration of technology into our lives and businesses. Its practical vision of the role of technology finds its most powerful voice in the shape of its president Masami Yamamoto. A compact and serious-minded man, Yamamoto had a youthful interest in kendo (‘the way of the sword’), an explosive but disciplined martial art, and, like many of his senior colleagues, has spent his entire career with the company.

‘I am an engineer,’ he says with engaging bluntness. It explains everything. The entire ethos of Masami Yamamoto and Fujitsu springs from this realization. It is a company built by engineers and, lest we forget, it was engineering excellence that transformed war-ruined Japan into an industrial powerhouse and, still to this day, the third biggest economy in the world.

With this come the preoccupations and fascinations of engineers. They seek out problems and apply their ingenuity to solving them. For that reason, Fujitsu’s products and research are wide ranging. Once a social problem is solved, another one soon follows. Solving our societal problems is what the company does. That is why Fujitsu boasts about 100,000 patents worldwide and a $2.5 billion annual R&D budget. The impression is that the company’s agenda is not set by simple money making, but by the interests and passions of the engineers combined with the input of consumers and the likely societal benefits of any project they work on.

Talk to other senior executives at Fujitsu and the engineering vision holds true. The company, with 162,000 employees operating in more than 100 countries, begins with engineering. But where does it go from there? What is its intended destination? Vice president Tango Matsumoto pauses to give a summary. ‘I trust our people to maximize value for our customers. My ambition is doing well by doing good. We have to verify through our customers whether we are doing good or not.

The job of the leader is to bring meaning to the organization and the performance of every single task in the organization. It is the classic story of whether a man is building a wall or helping to build a cathedral. Meaning builds.

Resources

Our interview with Stew Friedman can be found in Leadership (McGraw Hill, 2013).

Our article on Fujitsu was in Business Strategy Review (Winter, 2014).

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