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As the world has become more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, business leaders have needed to adapt. Research led by GlobalScot David Learmond has identified the key characteristics that should be in every good leader's DNA.


CEO as rock star is dead. This was one of the conclusions that came out of extensive research carried out with business leaders from across Europe, the US and Asia.

GlobalScot David Learmond, who is also senior advisor on Global Human Capital for The Conference Board, led the work that looked at the DNA of Leadership. The subtitle of his most recent report was “Leadership in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) World”.

See how the behaviours fit together

Over several sessions, global executives discussed the changing needs of leaders for today’s business environment. David distilled that work into six essential behaviours.

He said: “There was a very long list of leadership essentials which was not in any particular order. Then we started to home in on things people felt were particularly important.

“I’ve defined six behaviours that are the things that make the difference when it comes to changing cultures and the way people think about leadership. I started to build my own model of how businesses could really start to try to tackle some of the underlying causes of a lot of the frustration that people were experiencing.”

1. Purpose

At the top of his list is ‘purpose’. This is defining a common meaning for an organisation’s work.

“We need to discover the meaning behind work. There’s a vacuum for many people,” he said, giving an example of Unilever, a company he used to work for.

Several years ago, it was felt that, while still doing well, the company had lost its way in some respects. When new chairman Paul Polman arrived at the organisation he did two things. He said to the market that he wasn’t prepared to give short-term business predictions about growth because he wanted a longer-term view of how the business was doing.

The businesses and organisations that are likely to be more successful are those that can learn from their setbacks and not allow themselves to be totally destroyed by things not going to plan. They pick themselves up and move on, sometimes bending a little bit with the wind but also perhaps to be agile enough to get out of the way of the storm.

David Learmond, GlobalScot and leadership expert

Then he went to spend time at Port Sunlight, the Merseyside birthplace of Unilever, to try to discover what the legacy of the business was.

He learned that when William Lever formed the original Lever Brothers company in 1885 he stated that he wanted to make “cleanliness commonplace”. He had a purpose. Inspired by this, Polman decided that Unilever’s purpose today was to make sustainability commonplace in the world.

“Now, if you look back at what he’s done over the past five or six years he’s galvanised the company behind that purpose to the extent that he now talks about it at Davos. And Unilever is now quoted by independent observers as the most sustainable company and people want to join the organisation because of its sustainability,” explained David.

Unilever’s clear purpose made it easier for everyone within the organisation to rally behind it. In the same way other organisations – large or small – need to identify and spell out their purpose.

2. Trust

David believes clarity of purpose is the first step to building – or rebuilding – trust.

“Certainly, at the time we were talking,” he added. “There was a feeling that the trust had been broken in many organisations and institutions. That needs to be rebuilt and not just from people who had to leave some businesses, but the people who were left behind had to do much more than was the case beforehand.

“In many cases, there was a recognition that there had to be trust and there had to be integrity. People delivering on what they say they’ll do is the basis for trust.”

3. Collaboration

The third behaviour is collaboration, which is the ability to pull people together for a common purpose in a situation where they trust each other.

His leadership behaviours are clearly interconnected. “Increasingly in our multi connected world, we operate in collaboration within the organisation but also with partners, suppliers, customers and consumers. It’s really very, very important and, of course, digitisation and the growth of social media makes it possible in ways it hasn’t previously been.”

David offers the example of Tesco where the new CEO, Dave Lewis, is very focused on creating partnerships with suppliers rather than treating them as a commodity.

4. Diversity

Diversity is fourth on David’s list of behaviours. He defines this as encouraging a diversity of voices and points of view.

“If you think about the banking crisis, there has been much written about how if there had been challenges in boardrooms, if there had been different points of view expressed, then we may not have had the kind of crash that we experienced,” he said.

“It seemed like there was a lot of lemming-like behaviour as well as various kinds of sharp practices that had become commonplace. Perhaps if there had been much more challenge, not just in the boardroom, but right the way through the organisation those things wouldn’t have been allowed to develop into such huge issues.

“So allowing diversity of view, even when it’s not particularly popular or it’s contrary, is essential behaviour in organisations.”

5. Edge

Edge as a behaviour is when there is continual challenge within an organisation about doing things better.

It’s on the list because once purpose, trust, collaboration and diversity are in place and things are going fairly well, the biggest threat is from complacency.

Edge can be about creating radical change, but it can also be about making sure that things are being doing in the best possible way to achieve results.

6. Resilience

The final behaviour is resilience and the ability to accept the knocks and to come back stronger.

"It’s often married up with the idea of agility. The businesses and organisations that are likely to be more successful are those that can learn from their setbacks and not allow themselves to be totally destroyed by things not going to plan. They pick themselves up and move on, sometimes bending a little bit with the wind but also perhaps to be agile enough to get out of the way of the storm.”

The essential building blocks for leadership

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