Courageous questions and leading for a better future

When coronavirus restrictions gradually begin to loosen in the coming months, a veil of normalcy will descend. The temptation will be to return to business as usual, to recreate the familiarity of how things were. But now that the inertia of our everyday lives has been broken, the reality is that the world has changed, and there is no returning to what used to be.

For leaders fortunate enough to be able to look beyond their businesses’ immediate survival, they have a choice. They can rationalize and even ignore the inconvenient truths that are now exposed for all to see, and work reactively, with Sisyphean effort, to restore the order of things. Or, they can join the small and growing community of leaders who, for some time now, have been actively taking on these uncomfortable truths to create a more generous, more equitable, and more sustainable world defined by flourishing — not merely financial growth.

For the past decade, I’ve had the privilege of working alongside Fortune 500 executives from a variety of industries — media, healthcare, technology, fashion — as they’ve sought to transform for the better in an ever-changing landscape. While financial performance and productivity have certainly been common threads across each of their transformations, there has been a tacit and perhaps more significant shift: a slow, but steady move from a shareholder-focused corporate environment to a multi-stakeholder one.

The leaders and businesses who have pioneered and embraced this shift have designed and implemented purpose-driven business strategies (e.g. WW’s refocus on wellness), diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives (e.g. BlackRock’s I&D investments), partnerships and collaborations (e.g. Sustainable Apparel Coalition), and employee, community, and sustainability investments (e.g. CVS’s $2B decision to not sell cigarettes). And in doing so they are developing, recognizing, and prioritizing different forms of value.

Leaders at each of these businesses share a key trait in common: They ask courageous questions. They aren’t perfect, but they are choosing to face inconvenient truths by asking themselves tough questions and prioritizing actions that create value in a more holistic manner. Carl Sagan once said,

“We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.”

The current pandemic has shown that adapting to a multi-stakeholder environment isn’t optional. It’s required. As Emmanuel Faber, Chairman and CEO of Danone, recently stated, “Everything we have seen during the last several months suggests companies will have even more stakeholders than they felt before, with government stepping in, health authorities stepping in, and so on. Whether you want to call them stakeholders or not, they are… This idea of stakeholder capitalism is going to be significantly bigger than it was before the crisis, whether you like it or not.”

At SYPartners, we’ve always believed that leaders can transform businesses, and businesses can transform the world. It starts with purpose and values — an organization’s reason for being and most deeply-held convictions. It’s imagined through design and strategy — the method and process of envisioning the future and then arranging all the elements to make it a compelling picture of the future. And it’s made a reality through its people, equipped with the proper motivation, ability, and conditions to thrive.

The difference now is that every business has ample reason to reconsider everything through a more holistic lens. The coronavirus pandemic has pulled back the curtain and opened the aperture. Laid bare are widespread inequities, unintended consequences, and undervalued opportunities. And better illuminated than ever before are the deep and integral dependencies that extend well beyond the walls of office buildings, stores, and financial transactions. In a span of weeks, what began in one city, one province, one country reached every corner of the world — from the highest offices to the most humble homes. Buckminster Fuller’s concept of “Spaceship Earth” has never been more real.

How might our lives change if leaders chose to reprioritize and redesign for human dignity as much as utility? Well-being as much as profitability? Equity as much as growth and scale? Sustainability, as much as performance?

At SYP, we hold these aspirations from a place of hope and optimism while drawing upon experience and pragmatism. In our more than 25 years working alongside exceptional leaders of all kinds, we’ve seen first-hand how businesses — at their best — can meaningfully contribute at every level. Change is possible, over time. What’s required is shared resolve, shared vision, and perhaps equally important—imagination and creativity.

In the past few months alone, we have all learned so much about how deeply we actually depend on each other. And in this moment of flux, leaders have room and latitude to use that knowledge to fundamentally reconsider and redesign their businesses. But the window is closing. With local governments already looking to “reopen” communities, energy and attention will quickly shift back to “business as usual.” And what was malleable and pliable will quickly harden and set again.

Of course, every leader and business is on its own journey with its own interests. This is not about sacrificing individualism for collectivism. It’s about holding, rather than diffusing, the tension between the two. The very strength of collectives and systems is their diversity. The challenge and the opportunity is to use this moment and this tension as creative inspiration for a new way forward. In her remarkable manifesto written as she was dying, Eleanor Roosevelt declared,

“We ourselves can make experience valuable when, by imagination and reason, we turn it into foresight. It is that foresight we must acquire. In a very real sense, tomorrow is now.”

My hope is that when leaders are presented the reasonable question, “How quickly can we get back to normal?” — they might just be a little less reasonable. A little more courageous. Leaders might dare to ask more essential questions: questions that address where, for whom, to what end our choices should be made, as my colleagues Jessica and Thomas posed last week. Questions that challenge long standing assumptions, seek different perspectives, bring more diverse stakeholders, embrace tensions, and stoke the imagination for what could be.

At SYP, we too must challenge our own beliefs, assumptions, and defaults. We are on a journey. We have stumbled. We have learned. And we will stumble again. And still, we will continue because it is worthy work. We firmly believe that earnest, courageous inquiry allows us to confront uncomfortable truths and discover new ways forward with humility, generosity, and humanity. Bold moves, consistently made, can change the course of Spaceship Earth by just a few degrees. The change in trajectory may hardly be perceptible in the moment, but in 1,000 miles or 100 years, Spaceship Earth will be in a fundamentally different, and hopefully, better place.

For all leaders, now is the time to fight the urge to be reasonable. To ask courageous questions. To choose truth over comfort. And to redesign the future.

Illustration by Matt Kay

Partner at SYPartners. Exploring the edges of my competence.