In an annual letter to CEOs, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink makes a better society challenge:

“To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”

At CES 2018, Ford president and CEO, Jim Hackett issues a better day challenge:

“It’s not about cities getting smarter, it’s about humans having a better day.”

Bold statements for better days and better society but we need more than words. We need smart leaders.

Challenging the Challengers: The Stale Leader Risk

Both statements inspire, calling on technology providers to implement technology with a higher mission and business leaders to craft a better society. Here are the challenges with their challenges:

  • In 2014, Larry Fink called on CEOs to slow their stock buybacks and invest in growth instead. Buybacks are at four times where they were twenty years ago, and capital expenses are largely unchanged. Calls to act in better ways need accountability.
  • Creating more socially active companies is underway, with certain CEOs leading the change and organizations supporting B Corps and Benefit Corporations. Substantive change requires substantive leaders.
  • Our city system of roads, sidewalks, and buildings are in place. New technology will need to fit mostly within existing infrastructure.
  • When automobiles first entered our society, communities and networks were built around this new technology. New freedoms built new ways to interact, creating mobile citizens. Now, we need to retrofit with the next wave of Smart City technologies and innovations.

Stale leaders will look at the challenges and settle into their fixed mindsets. They will point to the challenges and turn inward. Stale leaders know all the challenges, remaining fixated on why something cannot be done rather than on what can be done.

We need to lead around and through the know-it-all, been-there-done-that leaders.

Smart Leaders: Learn-It-All with Focus on Insightful Action

We are at the tipping point of a new era of leadership, leaving stale leaders behind. To tip the balance further, we need smartness in our communities. The big change required is better collaboration and productive problem-solving. We need Smart Citizens, and we need Smart Leaders.

Rohit Aggarwala, the head of urban systems at Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, hit this point squarely:

“What we know is that doing this well is going to require an intense process of public engagement. A city can only work if it is co-created with the people who live and work there.”

Public engagement and co-creation are two ideas that need to prevail over current divisiveness and deadlock. Design thinking is an approach to use more fully as is simple civility. We need a new approach that includes:

  • Learning as much as possible from as many as possible
  • Synthesizing what is heard and read to information that matters the most and impacts the most in positive ways
  • Gaining acceptance on what is doable and holding everyone accountable to the plans and implementation
  • Forgiving when the unexpected happens but backed with plans and actions to learn, adjust, and move forward
  • Communicating a higher purpose and mission to rally active participation
  • Measuring the purpose and mission milestones and communicating results with adjusted plans of action

Learning is evident through each conversation and action. More than learning, it is linking what is learned to better plans and actions. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella calls this the “learn-it-all” type of leader, and I believe in this approach when learning is collaborative and focused on productive solutions.

Better Society: The Rise of Smart Leaders

Some of the frustration in our lives can be attributed to staleness. Some are comfortable with what is known or the fairy-tale good ol’ days. The Urban Dictionary definition of “good ol’ days” is spot on: “…when these words are used in combination it is a signal to young people to get the hell out.”

We need the fresh ideas of Millennials and Generation Z. We also need the experience of the older generations. We need to meet in the middle to collaborate, innovate, and solve.

We need to remember two key ideas:

  1. Staleness empowers discontentment, and
  2. Leaving our communities better than our lifetime is the best legacy.

Bold statements are only as good as the next step. Productive progress creates new freedom, confidence, and responsibility. Now, we need to enable, support, measure, and encourage a new generation of Smart Leaders.


Featured photo: Monument Valley, Jon Mertz, All Rights Reserved.
Second Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash
Bold statements on better days and better society inspire. We need more than inspiration. We need smart leaders from all generations.