Paul Polman has been through it all—he became CEO of a struggling multinational corporation during the height of the recession, survived a terrorist attack in Mumbai and has led global task forces and committees. Each of those experiences have contributed to his unique perspectives, but they don’t define him as a leader. His strong leadership is driven by a deeper sense of purpose, which Paul says is the most important attribute of a leader.
I had the chance to interview Paul for my book The Future Leader, and he told me this: “I have always passionately believed that the single most important attribute of a leader is to be driven by a deeper sense of purpose.”
Think about that—more than any other attribute a leader can have, Paul believes the most important one is a deeper sense of purpose.
Unilever has more than 155,000 employees around the world and annual revenue of more than $51 billion, but creating a sense of purpose is top priority. The company has put more than 34,000 employees through an interactive workshop on purpose and meaning that helps them create an individual purpose statement that connects to the purpose of the company as a whole. To do that, employees dig deep to discover what motivates them and drives their actions, which can be anything from personal values to past experiences.
A deeper sense of purpose can manifest itself in many ways, but here are three areas leaders can show their sense of purpose:
A deeper sense of purpose is rooted in the idea of serving people, both those in your immediate reach and people around the world.
“You have to connect with the people and world around you, commit to a cause bigger than your own self-interest and, crucially, put yourself to the service of others,” Paul said.
Paul believes doing good and connecting with people is especially important in our modern era where trust has given way to skepticism and cynicism. It’s easier to be cynical, but leaders must combat the natural tendencies of others by being self-aware and emotionally intelligent.
Paul became the CEO of Unilever at the height of the 2008 financial crisis and stepped in to lead a struggling company. He credits much of his success in turning the company around to focusing on social responsibility and doing good in his community. Paul is a strong believer that businesses can’t survive if societies fail, which is shown through Unilever’s significant contributions to societies and economies around the world. The company and its employees use their skills and resources to make the world better by providing resources and supplies to developing economies and local philanthropies.
Successful leaders are impactful because they are authentic and true to themselves. They are guided by their personal values and stay true to those principles.
Paul believes authenticity also helps leaders build meaningful relationships. When leaders are true to themselves, it invites other people to let their walls down and be true to themselves as well, which creates strong bonds. Without authenticity, most workplace relationships are superficial, which is detrimental to collaboration, communication, and development.
Authenticity comes from caring about people and putting them first. Paul and his team were attending a business dinner in the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai in 2008 when the hotel was attacked by terrorists. They were trapped for hours as attacks raged across the city, but people in the hotel came together to protect each other. That experience reinforced to Paul that people are good, and he showed that himself by returning to the hotel a few months later with other team members to serve dinner to the hotel staff as a way to say thank you and get closure. Being authentic means showing genuine emotion and demonstrating that people are important through your words and actions.
The world is changing at a breakneck speed, and the challenges that future leaders will face often aren’t even on our radars today. Paul is a strong believer that future leaders must be adaptable and resilient. They must have the courage to experiment and learn from disruption and to fail, recover, and envision the future.
A strong sense of purpose builds resilience. When leaders know what they are working for and envision long-term goals, they aren’t bogged down by temporary setbacks. They can quickly bounce back from failure and learn from their mistakes because their eyes are focused on their deeper purpose.
Resiliency also helps build patience and helps leaders look at the big picture instead of getting stuck thinking with a quarterly mindset.
How can you develop a deeper sense of purpose?
- Create your individual purpose statement. Why do you do what you do? What’s your vision for the future?
- Do good in your company, your community, and the world. Find a way to give back and be an example, even if it is just a small act of kindness.
- Be authentic and show real emotion to build relationships. Talk openly with your colleagues and listen to their responses.
- Set long-term goals and practice resiliency when challenges arise.
Of all the many skills for future leaders, former Unilever CEO Paul Polman believes a deeper sense of purpose is the most important. Developing that sense of purpose every day strengthens other skills that are vital for the future. Get out there and find your purpose!
Leadership is changing. What are the skills and mindsets you need to master in order to lead in the new world of work? According to over 140 of the world’s top CEOs there are 4 mindsets and 5 skills that leaders need to master. Learn what they are and hear directly from these leaders by downloading the PDF here.
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