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Answering Society’s Call: A New Leadership Imperative

This article originally appeared on McKinsey Quarterly

How do transparency, empathy, and meaning work in practice? As demands for social accountability rise, so do demands on leaders.

This article, based on a range of McKinsey research and case studies of leaders in action, provides a glimpse of the emerging new leadership imperative. Sometimes it’s about boosting transparency — for example, the moves a few fashion — and consumer-oriented companies are making.

Empathy also looms large, as shown by new McKinsey research based on surveys and interviews with a group of fellows at Ashoka, one of the world’s leading communities of social entrepreneurs. Also critical: a sense of meaning, say two CEOs who recently described their work during a panel discussion marking the 50th anniversary of Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School.

Transparency, empathy, and meaning — timeless and increasingly timely — are all starting to define a new leadership benchmark.

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Ashoka insight

We surveyed 109 Ashoka Fellows and senior members of the Ashoka community and interviewed a dozen of them in depth. We found that many shared important assumptions: that any problem is solvable, that individuals and organizations should be empowered to contribute to society, and that people are well intentioned.

Three characteristics, all driven by a strong sense of moral responsibility, stood out: the ability to develop a broad future vision that extends beyond the problem at hand, to inspire and build trust with others by finding common ground, and to lead by example.

These three elements add up to a leadership attribute we broadly describe as the ability to build social purpose through cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy, which differs from the more common emotional empathy, is the largely conscious drive to recognize and understand another person’s emotional state. 

Leadership traits such as a tolerance for failure and the ability to create a network of alliances are also important. But the survey results clearly show that purpose-driven empathy is indispensable for driving meaningful change.