Leadership is the task of making things different. Because of this every leader can be described as making an impact, but not every leader can be described as an Impact Leader.
Think of a great leader. It can be anyone – they could be active now or have been around thousands of years ago. They could be a political leader, a business leader, a social leader, a scientific leader, a military leader; they could even be fictional.
Who have you thought of? Steve Jobs? Cleopatra? Henry VIII? Qin Shi Huang? Winston Churchill? Oprah Winfrey? Jacinda Ardern? Henry Ford? There are plenty out there to choose from.
Whoever came to mind, one thing is certain – when you considered their ‘greatness’ you weren’t thinking about how they managed a balance sheet, their performance against KPIs or the shareholder value they created. You were thinking about the impact they created.
Impact Leadership is the conscious decision to bring broad horizons into your leadership practice, ensuring that you consider every aspect of the challenges you set for yourself and others. It demands the capacity to understand contexts beyond your own, to be able to empathise with and acknowledge experiences you haven’t directly had, and most importantly requires an ability to think holistically based on your own and others’ insights.
The purpose of Impact Leadership is to broaden the parameters of your success. It shifts your legacy as a leader from simple functionality to continued value. In the past it might have been the domain of a select few, but in the future, it will be an essential tool for leaders in all domains. Its fundamental task is to ensure positive growth in all affected dimensions, not just the one at hand.
Why Impact Leadership matters now
There are truisms which we regularly hear: that we are in a period of unprecedented change; that the world is more volatile and uncertain than ever before; that complexity is the norm; that technology is accelerating every aspect of the world around us.
These facts are undeniable, but where does it leave us? We are frequently confused as to how we should act and what canvas we must act on. One reason why we lose direction as leaders is that there seem to be too many fronts for us to pursue, with all of these possibilities disorienting us.
But another truth is that these many fronts are not going away and are likely to multiply instead of being reduced. Focusing on leadership as a reductive task where we narrow our attention does not give us a route to success. To be able to create order our attention must be expansive as we work to align the disparate elements which influence our organisations, teams and outcomes.
We are faced with an incredible degree of interconnectedness – products, services, societies, technologies and ecosystems all interrelate at an unprecedented level. Any development in one area requires a shift in understanding, outcome or behaviour in another. The way a mine operates in Australia impacts its social media PR in the US, drives its share price on the Stock Exchange in London, affects access to raw materials for manufacturing in Guangzhou and influences the availability of consumer products in Johannesburg.
No leadership action sits in isolation in our profoundly interconnected world. The context in which we now operate demands that instead of shying away from the many dimensions in which we work we must enlarge our leadership perceptions to include every aspect which we have impact on, however far it may appear to sit from our core endeavours.
What being an Impact Leader means
To be an Impact Leader is to exercise leadership in many dimensions. Taking the above example, it means to be able to understand and make judgements about: the environmental, cultural and socio-economic impact of mining in Australia; the public perception and media platforms of the US; the economics, needs and responsibilities of shareholders in the UK markets; the manufacturing and logistics mechanisms in China; and consumer behaviour and demands in South Africa. It does not require technical knowledge in each area (expertise in particular domains can be sought from technicians) but it does require the ability to think critically and join the dots between seemingly separate aspects. The capacity to discriminate between what is significant and what is irrelevant, and for that judgement to be trusted by others is paramount.
Impact leadership is not a set of knowledge but is a way of approaching the world. At its heart is the capacity to understand the chains which bind each decision we take into a series of reactions which in turn affect additional aspects of what we are trying to achieve.
Being an Impact Leader means that you exercise the capacity to step beyond bias and assumption to objectively consider your decisions and choices. It does not require a particular ideological position, instead it simply demands a process of enquiry and critical thought which shores up the final judgements made. Most leadership decisions do not involve objective ‘truths’ – leadership is the navigation of distinct possibilities rather than certainties – and Impact Leadership does not create deliver empirical ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, rather it guarantees that every impact can be accounted for.
Building your capacity as an Impact Leader
To develop your capacity to be an Impact Leader it is important to recognise where you sit. Impact Leaders are positioned at the horizon – they are looking ahead to what is new in equal balance to what has come before. They learn lessons and insights from the landscape leading up to the horizon and shape new possibilities which sit beyond the horizon in the light of this understanding.
To develop yourself as an Impact Leader there are four cardinal skills and behaviours which you must acquire to be able to position yourself at the heart of true impact;
- Critical thought – rational judgement which evaluates both self and context is essential to ensure clarity of decision and direction. It does not require the removal of subjectivity, but instead moderates for it, allowing you to step beyond your assumptions and biases towards a greater ‘truth’
- Trustworthiness – to respond in a range of domains, those who are expert in these need to be willing to trust your capacity to understand the linkages between worlds. Trustworthiness, or the capacity to act in a way which inspires others to trust in you, is a major component of leading impact.
- Purposefulness – understanding the profound objective that you are working towards creates a springboard for opening yourself up to the many dimensions you must consider as you develop impact. Purpose provides the light and shade under which you can balance the outcomes you create and the effects they have around you.
- Courage – being impactful requires us to step beyond ourselves and let go of the safety net of assumptions which give us comfort. Rather than being an unknowable skill, courage is an ability learned through the combination of capacity, autonomy, belonging and generosity. Impact requires us to be courageous enough to look beyond our needs and acknowledge the experiences of others.
To be impactful requires conscious action – it is not an accidental outcome but the sum of intent, action, and awareness. It requires a perspective on the world which makes you see the potential for positive development in multiple areas and to have a desire to see growth occur in each of these.
Our customers, employees and stakeholders demand that we recognise the broad scope of what we do; in return we must step up as leaders to place impact, not simply success, at the heart of our leadership practice.
This insight was first featured in our leadership insights magazine Inspire, to view past issues click here.