Leif Johansson is one of 36 CEOs we selected for the four-year leadership research project that culminated in the book, Higher Ambition: How Great Leaders Create Economic and Social Value. Johansson who retired as CEO of the Volvo Group in 2011 told us that during the economic meltdown of 2008 and 2009 he maintained his equilibrium by thinking about his family and friends and how they were more important to him than his job. This was not a new practice for him; this was a realization that came to him early in his career and in his first CEO job as the head of Electrolux.
Johansson also has a simple and powerful test to track his personal performance and progress as a leader. It’s what he calls the “Kitchen Table Test”: At breakfast with his family on Saturday mornings, he asks himself, “How easy is it to explain what I have accomplished this week and the decisions I have made? Does my family get it? Does what I say make them proud? Does it make me proud to tell them about it?”
Working from the Leader Out
Our research method for discovering such stories was quite simple. We decided to work from the “leaders out” rather than from “the scholar or consultant in.” Apart from supporting the notion that today’s exemplary companies create both social and economic value, we did not set out to prove a hypothesis about how such value is actually created. Rather, we chose to listen carefully and observe closely what leaders act — what they say and what they do, and then we analyzed and synthesized what we learned.
Distinct from more common studies that attempt to show how companies with “people-centric” corporate cultures outperform their peers, we were interested in an area that is far less understood: the critical roles and practices of leadership that contribute to creating superior performance and sustained social and economic value. We sought leaders across a wide range of industries and geographies with sufficient commitment, experience, capability, and self-awareness that they had something genuine and important to say on this topic.
We make no claims that the leaders we interviewed are the “best” CEOs, chosen by some rigorous scientific method, or that any of them are without faults. In fact, one of the defining characteristics of these leaders is a deeper self-awareness of their limitations than one typically finds in a CEO.
Finding a Company’s Soul
In the course of writing this book, my colleagues and I discovered many more stories and experiences from leaders on three continents who told us there is no more energizing and meaningful way to spend your professional life than to lead and create an organization with a higher ambition that stands the test of time. Leif Johansson expressed a sentiment many of our CEOs shared: “Volvo has a soul as a company that I have been able to join and be a part of developing. But this soul doesn’t end with me, it will pass on to the next generation.”
Yet, if higher ambitions for a company’s financial and social performance is so important to long term success why do so few CEOs pursue this path? We don’t believe this is primarily due to a lack of good intention. It is because productively managing the tension between achieving the results expected by today’s financial markets and the social value needed for many generations to come is far from easy. In our view, CEOs don’t have enough models to emulate, nor is there a rich enough body of resources that tell the truth about the challenges and opportunities of leadership with the diversity, depth, and practical guidance leaders need.
It is this need for grounded and specific leadership methods and behavioral models that inspired the book, Higher Ambition. And it is the urgent need for more research and more sharing of practical knowledge and advice that has led us to create this website and the other programs we are developing for The Center.
Join us to build a global community of practice and knowledge together.
Russ Eisenstat, Executive Director
Center for Higher Ambition Leadership