Philip Goldman: Business leaders must embrace their higher purpose

If there is one thing that Brexit has revealed – on both sides of the debate – is what happens when politicians become mired in the argument and no longer see their higher purpose. I‘ve no doubt that everyone involved is trying to do the right thing as they see it and with the best intentions, but the results are there to be seen.

How could it have been managed differently? To find the answer, it’s perhaps worth contrasting the current Westminster travails with another hugely significant political event 25 years ago.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela, campaigning to be South Africa’s first black president, had a televised debate with the then president – FW de Klerk. It wasn’t a comfortable experience for the ANC leader. A New York Times account of the debate reported, ‘Mr. Mandela, who is often ill at ease on television, was didactic, plodding, occasionally testy, and, surprisingly, willing to let Mr. de Klerk set the pace.’ And, by all accounts, de Klerk won many of the key issues. However, at the end of the debate, and while the cameras were still rolling, Mandela walked across, shook de Klerk’s hand, and wished him good luck, telling him, “You are a true son of Africa”. In that moment de Klerk is said to have known that he would lose the election.

If he had only been focused on himself, Mandela, having been beaten in the debate, could easily have fallen into victim mode. What he demonstrated was that, beyond party politics, he had something greater: a vision beyond his own inner purpose. What he wanted was what was right for South Africa; he had a higher purpose.

A sense of higher purpose

Why is that relevant today? We want and need to hear our political leaders’ strong opinions – that is right and proper in the democratic process – but if an attachment to a strong opinion is too tightly held and motivated by a desire to always be ‘right’, the result is conflict. It’s critical that politicians, and business leaders alike, see themselves as part of a ‘bigger whole’. It’s where Mandela was so successful.

Too much ego causes conflict

In business, the best executive teams always move beyond their own individual ego and their personal and team agendas. The ‘whole’ needs to win. Too many ‘teams’ within the whole can seek to be recognised. So much so that they withhold information to trip up other departments; making themselves stand out as better but to the detriment of the whole organisation.

One of the things a CEO wants and requires from a top executive team is not only that they bring their views and opinions, but that they can also put those views and opinions to one side for the greater good. Again, it’s not opinions that cause conflict; it’s people’s attachment to their opinions and having to be right. It’s ego that causes the conflict. A CEO wants strong opinions but lightly held.

Move into a more reflective and enquiring state

Great leaders have an ability to listen, to understand different points of view, and help move their teams and organisations into a more reflective and enquiring state. During the 35 years I’ve been involved in coaching, the successful business transformational changes demonstrate that it is not just about the strength of the argument it is more about the strength of leadership. Perhaps, if the Prime Minister’s intended resignation is motivated by a desire to do what’s in the best interest of the country, the tide is turning.