There is a vast disconnect between leaders and the organizations they lead – a disconnect which is only getting wider as the pace of change increases.

How can leaders help drive a different route towards disruption and transformation – not through programs and processes, but through discovering their true personal purpose?

Sonja Kresojevic shares her own transformation story at innov8rs Paris – a series of lessons she learned the hard way about how we can influence sustainable and meaningful change in and outside of organizations.

After 20 years of relentless dedication to executive roles, running large-scale corporate transformation programs, delivering progressively better results and becoming an expert in her field, Sonja noticed several unresolved problems sitting at the heart of the corporations she sought to help.

But she also found a solution on the way to helping senior management to lead more impactful innovation programs – a solution seemingly unrelated to her impressive career trajectory.

What are some of the common challenges she has observed across big corporates?

“We all talk about disruption and the high pace of change, and yet very few things have changed in the corporate world; from outdated organizational structures to strategy that’s still driven by unproven assumptions.

This means we are disconnected from what teams are working on, and lack clear measures of success, or ability to react to learnings and as a result not responsive enough. If it takes 6 months and multiple committees to make a decision, we can’t talk about business agility or assume we will continue to be competitive in the highly disruptive environment we are operating in.”

This disconnect is widened by competing priorities, lack of accountability, and focus on short term results to name just a few of the common challenges.”

It follows that this cyclical short-termism in strategy means a lack of alignment between the organization’s purpose and a sense of personal purpose for those people who work there. But it’s also driven by fear: the fear of sinking into irrelevance and being replaced by the function of innovation itself; being outperformed by technologies and out-gamed by peers.

We can’t solve these problems with the same kind of thinking that has created them in the first place.

Our corporation is our society

Leadership’s role is to model the organizational behaviors which will shape our future. Senior executives exist to lead by example, influence and act out values such as curiosity, courage, and openness in the face of exponential change.

These are the personal and professional values which we need to hold onto if we’re to join the journey forward – and yet leaders too are paralyzed by fear of the unknown, and remain in deep denial about what doesn’t work:

“Despite all the big talk of agility, co-creation and holistic working environments – many executives are still very much walking the old way of micro-management, vanity metrics and siloed incentives”, Sonja observes.

But is it any wonder we’re experiencing these problems in our micro-business worlds? The short-term strategy, the widening us-and-them divide, the lack of purpose, are all a reflection of a much bigger and more systemic problem with society at large, explained by Otto Scharmer in his Theory U:

  • Ecological: we are currently using 50 percent more resources than our planet can regenerate to meet our current consumption needs.
  • Social: 2.5 billion people live on less than 2 dollars a day, which creates a huge social divide.
  • Spiritual: we are disconnected from ourselves, our sense of purpose and therefore unable to connect with those around us.

To shape meaningful change, leaders must take a closer look at themselves and start thinking:

  • How do they show up?
  • What are the patterns and behaviors that they need to let go of? i.e what do they need to UNLEARN to be able to lead with impact?

The disconnected self

We talk about anti-fragility on a company level, but what about on a human level?

“The disconnect we feel with ourselves and our purpose is the main challenge we face today, the blind spot of leadership. We have been so focused on processes and results, that we have forgotten about ourselves, our sense of purpose, the source from which we operate.

We need to look inside ourselves and realize our success as leaders is completely dependent on inner-leadership work. We need to start asking ourselves: Who are we? What is our place in the world? Why are we here? What are our values? Are we OK with what’s happening in the world? If we are not treating ourselves with compassion, curiosity, and courage; if we are not leading a life that’s purpose-driven; how can we possibly inspire change in our organizations, communities or society at large?”

The most important leadership challenge today is to shift from an egocentric, siloed, us-and-them attitude, to a more holistic, eco-centric, connected, approach, with focus on wellbeing for all, including ourselves.

“As leaders, we have a huge role in shaping this. We need to co-design the future together, embrace our learnings, step up to inspire change around us and fulfill our purpose. Our change needs to be sustainable, and it starts with a change in ourselves.”

This means asking ourselves some difficult questions, and leading by example:

“I was working 17-hour day, I had lost my innate curiosity in the outside world – something innovation thrives on, and that was what my team would see as their example: was I really modeling the right behavior for them? I arrived at a crossroads in my life and I had to ask myself some difficult questions about what I wanted.

For my own personal journey, this has not been an intellectual challenge – something I was accustomed to – but an emotional challenge. It wasn’t just about knowing myself as an executive, professional, mother, but about opening up, being vulnerable, questioning my priorities, and accepting and surrendering to the unknown.”

What Sonja began to hone overtime was a skill that we often don’t consider in the corporate world; a non-linear journey which would be more valuable than ascending any career ladder.

“I had to ask myself what I was willing to sacrifice to live my life according to my values… how am I showing up, as a leader? Which same behaviors and patterns am I repeating, that I need to let go of in order to move forward – in order to be true to who I am and what I stand for?

It wasn’t straightforward, and it wasn’t about climbing to the next summit.

I spent a lot of time looking inward and turning what I thought I knew on its head. As leaders, we need to learn how to think differently and learn differently, to be fully present – and crucially, become comfortable with not knowing.”

Disrupting & relearning ‘you’

We often talk about disruption as if it were exogenous – an external process which happens to the environment around us. We have forgotten about disruption within ourselves as humans, and our ability to react to change.

Learning is experiential, and it’s a difficult thing to truly look inside to learn from our own inner wisdom: that takes courage.

And it’s also a tough truth to swallow when you don’t have a clue what happens next. How do you react to something that no degree or experience can prepare you for?

“It takes courage to slow down, to be at peace and present with yourself. Do we as leaders have the courage to look at who we are? To let go of our old selves, the lingering fears that we have that hold us back? It’s time to make decisions, whether it’s about leading your company or changing your life outside of it.”

Looking inward, unlearning and relearning how to be with ourselves and others means that leadership can realign with what really matters at their core:

“Vulnerability doesn’t come easily, because we are taught that we need to be one person at work, another person at home, another on social media. You develop multiple personalities, and it’s hard to keep up.

It should be about treating everyone, including ourselves, with kindness, passion, and empathy. Showing up with courage and letting others see you – the real you. Asking for what you need. Having hard conversations. Slowing down and finding your flow. Holding yourself accountable. As Brene Brown said, ‘Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change,’ so what are the things we need to unlearn, to let go in order to embrace vulnerability in our lives?”

To transform our organizations or our society at large, we as leaders must transform ourselves first. We need to develop an ability to adjust our way of thinking, learning, doing and being. And it’s time for us to become comfortable with living in a state of continually becoming. This is really our work as innovators.