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Net Positive Leaders Do it Better

January 28, 2022 by Twan van de Kerkhof

Leaders of large companies have many qualities, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to address the complex and complicated challenges they face everyday. In their book Net Positive, Paul Polman and Andrew Winston write that there are “evergreen leadership skills that were important fifty years ago, and will be fifty years from now”. I would add that there are skills, behaviors and character traits that were important for most leaders in history, including Napoleon Bonaparte, Gandhi and Jack Welch. Polman and Winston write that effective leaders share traits, such as discipline, toughness and holding people to high standards, strategic thinking, intelligence, adaptability, resilience, curiosity, and a desire to understand key drivers of a business like technology. I think there are more, such as an achievement drive, a desire to influence and a great physical shape.

But that is not enough, according to the authors. “Leading a net positive business takes more than the basics. The best leaders, the ones people will want to follow into this new territory, are first and foremost good human beings.” They don’t explain what they mean by that nor why it is necessary. These net positive leaders “are at ease with themselves, have integrity, and what they say and what they do are in sync. Net positive leadership is also about putting others’ interests ahead of your own. It helps to know your own strengths and passions as well. The sweet spot is leading in the overlap of what you’re good at, what you like, and what the world needs. Unlocking the company’s soul has to start with baring your own.” I agree with them that leaders become better if they really understand who they are.

Polman and Winston single out five critical traits of net positive leaders:

  1. A sense of purpose, duty and service. “Passion is about finding yourself, but purpose is about losing yourself in something bigger than you.” Net positive leaders are the opposite of the old ‘company man’. They are more vulnerable, open, caring, empathetic and human.
  2. Empathy: a high level of compassion, humility and humanity. “Sadly, men in particular have been taught that being compassionate is a weakness.” They suggest to wear the ‘veil of ignorance’ introduced by philosopher John Rawls: “What kind of system would you design if you didn’t know whether you would be born a white male in a wealthy country, or a Syrian girl in a refugee camp? The answer is obvious. Respect, equity, compassion, humanity, and justice would be at the core.” Net positive leaders are decent people.
  3. They consider this the most important trait. “If you’re not uneasy, you’re not going far enough.” Executives often have a predilection for control and predictability. “They play not to lose instead of playing to win.” They note that many CEOs and political leaders become more courageous once they leave office. They should show that courage when they are still at the helm.
  4. The ability to inspire and show moral leadership. This is about purpose, values and connections, personal and organizational. Net positive leaders are consistent in what they say, do and prioritize. “Employees sniff out hypocrisy.”
  5. Seeking transformative partnerships. Build a critical mass to shift an industry. “It’s a new mindset to see that learning from NGOs or critics, trying to influence consumer behavior, supporting pro-sustainability government policies, and embracing the latest science should all be part of the normal operation of the business.”

The bar is set high for all leaders but it is set even higher for net positive leaders. They have a lot on their plates. That is unavoidable, given their ambition to change the world.

This is part of a series of blogs about “Net Positive”, an important book by Paul Polman and Andrew Winston. See the other blogs on this website.