Bain at One Young World – On becoming an effective leader of change

Kohei OYW

In his speech at the 2013 One Young World conference, Kofi Annan concluded “Change takes time. It is a process, not an event,” highlighting the difficulty of creating change, as well as the need for leaders to be able to navigate through and endure the process.

One exciting thing about the conference was that we weren’t caught up in just discussing the various social issues present in society, but managed to spend a lot of time discussing approaches taken by leaders to address them. This revealed many practical examples of effective leadership in creating change. I found this valuable not only as I aspire to become a better leader, but also as a consultant, given that our work centers around supporting corporate leaders as they seek to create sustainable and impactful changes in their organizations.

Here are some of the insights I learned on how to become a more effective leader of change:

1.    Have a clear vision

In the opening ceremony, Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank, encouraged us to write “social fiction.” He explained that science fiction about going to the moon had been written even before we could fly; this inspired people, and eventually the dream was realized. His point was that we need to do the same with something like poverty. What would the world look like if poverty were completely eradicated?

Often, we are quick to be skeptics about the possibility of large-scale change. But by envisioning an end goal, even if ambitious, we can provide a source of inspiration for different ideas and paths that may get us one step closer. Another benefit of having a clear vision is that it allows you to share your end goals with others. I’ve seen through our client work that when leadership formulates a clear vision and communicates it to key stakeholders, they can align and work more effectively towards a common goal.

2.    Know your weakness

Sir Richard Branson comes off as a charismatic figure, who loves what he does, and is wildly successful at it too. I think one of the key reasons for his success is that he knows his weakness, and is comfortable with it.

One of the stories Branson told was about his experience with dyslexia. At a recent board meeting, a member called him out for not knowing the difference between net and gross. After the meeting, Branson admitted he indeed did not know the difference, and the board member drew some fish and a fishing net in the sea, explaining that “gross is the total amount of fish in the sea, but all that really matters is how many fish are in the net”.  Branson explained to us that he had never been good with numbers, so he has just always left that for others to deal with. Instead, he focused on what he does best, identifying areas where he believes he can deliver a better service/product than the status quo, and just giving it a try.

Though this was a humorous story, it can take a lot of effort to identify and admit to a weakness, and then be comfortable enough to laugh about it. Even at the level of an organization, weaknesses are often invisible until a problem arises. But if the leader is able to preemptively work to identify, acknowledge and reach a certain level of comfort with the weakness, they are then able to think more objectively and strategically about how to address it.

3.    Take care of your well-being

When we discuss grand ideas like how to change the world, personal well-being is not something that comes up often. But Arianna Huffington, founder of Huffington Post, made an interesting case for why we should give it more thought.

One example of well-being she used was a true story about a mother and a daughter. The daughter was a laid-back, care-free girl, who would take her time doing everything. However, being a typical busy mum, “hurry-up” was a phrase the mother used all the time – when her daughter was picking out her favorite clothes to go to kindergarten, or taking time to finish her meal, etc.  One day, when she drove her second daughter home after kindergarten and she was getting out of the car, her older daughter sighed and told the second one how slow she was in a mean tone. At that moment, the mum realized that over the years, she had bullied and hurried her daughter who had just wanted to enjoy life, and had changed her. From that day on, she promised her daughters that she would never say “hurry up”, and she slowly started re-discovering the simple joys in life she had been missing, as well as a renewed love for her daughters.

Huffington used this story to underline how society as a whole needs to put more emphasis on personal well-being, from being fully present in everyday life as in the example above, to getting enough sleep and taking care of your mind and body. I felt this was particularly relevant for leaders, for whom personal well-being may be a lower priority. After all, without being fully aware of where you or your organization stand, it’s difficult to make effective decisions and execute on them. Equally, without enough rest and vitality, it’s difficult to keep driving change in the face of adversity.

Although these are just three examples, the conference was packed with inspiration and insights from delegates and speakers from around the world, working to address all kinds of social issues. I am ever so grateful to Bain for providing us with this incredible opportunity, and I look forward to putting these learnings into practice, inside and outside of Bain.

– Kohei, Senior Associate Consultant, Tokyo (currently on transfer in San Francisco)

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