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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

time for transformational leadership is now

26 January 2022 - In this blog, Director of Leadership Programmes, Gillian Secrett, considers the type of leadership we need now to deliver the future we want. 

The time is right for a new kind of leadership.  As the year ahead brings hope for a move to a new way of working and living with COVID, we can build on the agility and empathy which business and its stakeholder communities have demonstrated during the pandemic. Many global economies are starting to recover from the impact of COVID, yet the challenge of climate change is ever more urgent. Despite the numerous pledges made at COP26, the gap between ambition and action remains vast. And to compound the challenge, there is growing recognition that societies urgently need to turn their attention to tackling wider environmental and social challenges, which are arguably even more complex and difficult than achieving net zero carbon emissions. It is increasingly clear to many that transformational change is both inevitable and necessary. 

This is the time for leaders to seize the moment, take responsibility for our future and harness their courage to move things forward into a new paradigm.

The challenge:

The challenge we face in navigating to new, sustainable ways of living and working isn’t only a technical one, but a human one. 

Of course, as humans, it is natural to seek to protect our own interests and those of our families and communities.  Organisations will seek to protect their own interests and those of the stakeholders on whom they depend. Although instincts may default to protectionism, seeking to defend and protect the status quo and seeing salvation in boundaries, walls and channels, it is increasingly clear that these offer no long-term defence against inevitable system shocks and transformations. COVID has brought into sharp focus the systemic and interconnected nature of our existence and survival. Our collective destinies are tied together in the long term with the opportunity to thrive if we succeed in addressing climate change, protecting nature and creating inclusive societies.  

These challenges are already having very significant human impacts, for example through floods, fires, water scarcity and air pollution, many of which are borne most heavily by vulnerable communities. The necessary transformations will be in service of a collective ‘win’ but there will inevitably be those who lose out along the way, as we see significant shifts to jobs and communities. If we are going to move quickly, we will need people to be pulling together and not apart, and that requires us to focus on a process of transition which is fair and inclusive, as well as an end destination which meets human needs and aspirations. 

If we are to navigate these issues effectively, to take responsibility for our collective futures, we need to get serious about understanding the challenges at a human level, to focus our energies on delivering a future for humanity and take on the difficult challenge of transforming our economies, business and lives to achieve that collective win.
In short, the key question for leaders across society is how to catalyse a global paradigm shift within the next decade?

The leadership we need:

We need leaders and leadership that are able to take a long- term perspective, working across short, medium and long-term time horizons, to get us from where we are now, to this new paradigm.  Leaders who are purposeful and visionary and have the ability to engage with people and technology and create a road map through complexity and ambiguity to deliver an economy that works for all.  Who can pioneer new ways of creating financial value that ultimately deliver long-term wellbeing for people and planet.

Does this demand a new kind of leadership or simply traditional ‘good leadership’ applied to new challenges? 

Certainly, there are many aspects of current leadership practices that have much to contribute, but I believe there are some new dimensions that require much greater focus, and some ways of leading that we need to leave behind. Of course, business leaders still need to be commercially savvy, and develop strategies that create value, but – as we increasingly hear from investors - these strategies need to be aligned to deliver a purpose and value that serves shareholders, stakeholders and the wider society.  

Shifting the paradigm requires different mindsets, reasoning and behaviours to those which are required to thrive within the current paradigm. Leaders will need to find ways to make progress on challenges for which no conventional business case can be found, or where the potential solutions are highly contested, or when the interests of different stakeholder groups (e.g. investors and communities) are diametrically opposed, or where their power and influence will reside only in their personal integrity and values rather than their hierarchical authority and position or transactional power. 

So, what kind of leadership will be needed to deliver this transformation? What dimensions of leadership will need even greater emphasis than was needed in the past?

Leadership that is Purposeful:

We need leaders who are self-aware and purposeful.  Leaders with an inner confidence that is anchored by their own purpose, ethics and values to act as an inner compass to consistently guide their leadership and impact.  Leaders with a world view that considers the importance of others’ wellbeing as well as their own and hold themselves responsible to society for the way they operate.  Such leaders are able to shape purposeful organisations. Organisations whose reason to exist is to create value for shareholders and stakeholders through profitably and sustainably meeting a social need. We need leaders that are guided by this ultimate purpose to society while being commercially savvy and entrepreneurial enough to be able to deliver this outcome in a way that delivers for investors. With clarity of organisational purpose to serve as a north star and reference point, it is possible for leaders to be proactive and intentional and to avoid being deflected by the priorities of others. As leaders seek to hire the best talent and collaborate with stakeholders, organisational purpose provides clarity and meaning for that engagement enabling alignment of stakeholders and particularly employees, with the purpose of the organisation to deliver for the business and in turn for society.

Leadership that is courageous, innovative and pioneering:

Leaders guided by purpose can benefit from having clarity and meaning in their work and lives. This is turn helps to build courage, resilience and energy, to enable leaders to innovate and pioneer new ways of thinking and doing, to create new solutions and business models that embrace the opportunities, mitigate the risks and drive performance.

Leaders need the courage and confidence to work at the frontiers of best practice, to pioneer new solutions, to move forward even when they don’t know what the right answer might look like, can’t rely on traditional decision frameworks or data sources to help them, and where there are no tried and tested examples. This requires leadership that is adept at looking at business challenges ‘from the outside in’ as well as ‘from the inside out’ to ensure that they have the best evidence for innovation and decision making. They also need to have the confidence and humility to admit errors, call out and engage with inconvenient truths, proactively influence positive change and transformation, and be willing to experiment, learn and share and seek solutions.  

Leadership that is deeply human and inclusive: 

Leaders who are deeply human in their approach and seek to understand the drivers, values and perspectives of those around them will have the empathy and compassion to inspire and guide others through this challenging yet exciting transformation.  Leaders with empathy and compassion can develop trusting relationships that genuinely support their people, teams and stakeholders to have positive and productive experiences and outcomes amidst the uncertainty. 

Understanding oneself is a fundamental precondition for success, and leaders will need to be aware of their own biases and world views, strengths and challenges in order to show up as their best self, with the confidence to create the right conditions for others to be included and do their best work. This combination of self-awareness as well as empathetic concern for others, and the ability to listen, connect and inspire at all levels, will enable leaders to shape safe organisational cultures. Such cultures offer a safe space for support and challenge, foster real diversity of thought and enable innovation to thrive, and provide cohesion and resilience in turbulent times.

What kind of leadership do we need to leave behind or unlearn?

While we need bold and driven leaders, we need to leave behind hubristic leadership. Leadership, which is motivated solely by ego and status, which seeks to control communications rather than listening with humility to understand what others can contribute, and which relies on positional and transactional power to get results. Such leaders will struggle to get traction with those stakeholders who will need to be inspired rather than instructed to engage. 
Heroic leaders who seek to ‘go it alone’ in areas where systemic, collective solutions are needed, or leaders who put a premium on swift decision-making even in circumstances where deeper understanding and systems intelligence is required, may struggle to deliver the necessary changes across complex systems that will be required to enable long term business success. 

Leaders play a critical role:

Systemic problems require systemic solutions and leaders and leadership across the world have a critical role to play. We know the challenges that lie ahead, and we have many of the solutions already available to us. What we need now is transformational leadership - leadership that is motivated and capable of seizing the opportunity to deliver the future we want.

At CISL we develop business leaders and their boards to lead the way to this new paradigm, influencing change in mindsets, behaviour and capabilities to deliver value to their organisations whilst meeting society’s needs. Find out more through our Transformational Leadership Hub.

More information on leadership and purpose is available in the below reports, developed by the Centre for Business Transformation:


Visit the Transformational Leadership Hub

About the author


Experienced CEO and Board Director, Gillian is now focussed on researching and developing leadership capabilities in others, to drive value for shareholders,  stakeholders and ultimately long term wellbeing for people and planet, through strategic integration of sustainable solutions. Dedicated to helping leaders and aspiring leaders take a “deeply human” approach to leadership, to build and align personal purpose and goals with organisational purpose and strategy. To enable leaders to unlock energy and clarity of direction, build resilience and deliver results through high performance teams amidst a context of ambiguity and complexity.


Staff articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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