Nov 20, 2020
6 minute read
"Newton’s first law of motion can make us realize what status quo could do to organizations, teams and talents", says Mamadou-Abou Sarr.
To the question, why did you launch an investment firm with a focus on sustainability in the middle of a pandemic? My answer is because I wanted to "LEED" in a different way. Beyond this paronomasia, the course of events in 2020 forced me to reflect on what leadership should look like post pandemic. Analogously to the green building LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system being established to improve efficiency, performance, and sustainability, I see a clear parallel in freely applying its principles to the foundations of leadership.
Leading to the formation of V-Square, success throughout my entire career was rewarded by upward moves on the corporate ladder while working for large investment firms across four continents. Entering the industry seventeen years ago, my understanding of the notion of leadership was a combination of MBA reading lists including authors like Warren Bennis, John Wooden and Stephen R, Covey, examples of inspiring civic leaders such as Martin Luther king, Mandela, Sundiata Keita or Lat Dior Ngoné Latyr Diop and on a more profound level, what leadership looked like for me at home.
In most corporations and political apparatus, a position of leadership typically comes with a play book, job description, codes, reporting structures and dotted lines which somehow dictate the way leaders, interact with the group, or the organization she or he leads towards a common goal.
As I witnessed the bravery and leadership of essential workers, community organizers and civic leaders during this pandemic, I reflected on leadership styles and on the dangerous sandbox of “Leadership Positions” in the corporate world. Leadership abilities of corporate executives does not emerge as a new skillset paired with titles so often mistaken as epithets. Leadership is a “work in progress” state of mind allowing individuals to inspire, empower and drive teams towards a common goal.
Energy, Law of Motion
It may sound counter intuitive, yet I believe corporate mobility can create leadership inertia, and it takes sustained effort to keep moving and adapting to unending new challenges.
I remember taking a new leadership role at some point in my career and being advised by my manager to keep the status quo with the team and processes: “Mamadou, we are doing fantastic! Let’s stay put and don’t change anything!”. Indeed, why not let well alone? The answer was not about me; staying put in an evolving ecosystem had a far more negative impact on the bottom line of the company than just suppressing my drive for innovation. This is simple physics. Recalling Newton’s first law of motion can make us realize what status quo could do to organizations, teams and talents.
In essence, the law states that an object will not change its motion unless a force act on it. If it is at rest, it remains at rest. If it is in motion, it stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction. Innovating and transforming an industry requires introducing a force to challenge the status quo and overpower natural gravity. The current crisis made us realize that innovation must be part of corporations’ DNA so that they could, not only adapt to shifts in social and consumer trends, but also weather exogenous shocks.
Environment, Empathetic Leadership
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tragic death of George Floyd and the heartfelt call for racial equity require corporate leaders to draw more on their empathy and courage as a necessary condition for positive change. Empathy must move from the soft skills etiquette to hard skills and, leaders must work as intensely in that area as they do when they hone other components of their hard skills leadership tool kit.
I would define empathic leadership as the ability for any individuals to transcend oneself and demonstrate altruism in a leadership capacity. If we were to separate the notion of leadership from the one of civic duty, the informality of the authority of a civic leader makes his or her actions extremely noble and powerful. Can the empathic traits of most civic leaders be translated into the corporate world? The answer is yes. More than ever, our leadership acumen must integrate compassion, virtue, a sense of higher purpose and the ability to promote impactful changes for the benefit of all stakeholders.
One of the most transformative leadership programs I had the privilege to be part of, is Leadership Greater Chicago (LGC), a year-long civic leadership development program, exposing participants in an immersive manner to the major socioeconomic issues faced by the City of Chicago and the Greater Chicago.
At the beginning of the program, we were introduced to the concept of human-centered approach to design by prominent leaders from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Institute of Design in Chicago. I must admit that I was not familiar at all with such a process, mindset and approach to solving complex problems. After struggling for a few months on the application of this concept to address societal issues, I finally emptied my cup to fully embrace this approach and find applications in my civic and professional life. Human-Centered design focuses on understanding the perspective of the person who experiences challenges, their needs, and whether the solution that has been designed for them truly meets their needs effectively or not (https://medium.com/dc-design/what-is-human-centered-design-6711c09e2779).
I have embedded this mindset and approach in the fabric of my company, and the current crisis enabled me to empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test and iterate financial solutions aligned with a changing environment. I found this approach an invaluable tool to “LEED” in times of crisis.
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