Business leaders must be the agents of change – The Mail & Guardian

Book extract: Stressproof by Richard Sutton


Despite the challenges, the times we are living in also provide tremendous opportunities to those willing to be courageous. The opportunity to rewrite our current script and change the course of history lies in the hands of today’s leaders.

For decades we’ve watched famed naturalist David Attenborough document the marvels of our living world. Throughout his life’s work he has shown us the urgency with which we need to act in order to save our planet and the dire consequences on inaction. Yet, in many respects we haven’t heeded the warnings, resulting in severe climate change with catastrophic consequences.

By the same token, businesses and their people are equally as vulnerable. The corrosion of human health, especially mental well-being and sweeping disconnection, threatens the global economy and the very social fabric of human existence.

If we want the world to change, we have to start uplifting the lives and wellbeing of people. It is the people who arrive at work every day, who have families that love and rely on them, whose health is dependent on organisational policy and its culture. By the same token, organisations’ wellbeing and future depends on those people.

Business success is ultimately in the hands of its people, their capabilities, their potential and the time they are willing to invest. Leaders need to fully appreciate and realise this shared destiny and the immense responsibility that comes with it.

By shielding those people from chronic stress and strengthening support networks, leaders are able to reduce the prevalence of mental and physical health compromise brought on by fears, distrust, insecurities and conflicts, and also create an environment where productivity increases, innovation grows and creativity blossoms.

When human potential is realised, the probability of business success increases with it. Economic growth coupled with social responsibility can raise more people out of poverty, reduce inequality, give more people access to education and healthcare, slow population growth and, ultimately, save the planet.

Now more than ever, leadership transcends title and jurisdiction and is defined by selfless actions. Role models such as Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Siya Kolisi represent this ideal and the ability to influence society positively.

Drawing from extensive research and case studies, Stressproof: The Game Plan unpacks the current barriers that exist in the realisation of individual and team potential and many of the factors that may be limiting growth on an organisational level. While this understanding is vitally important, practical and established solutions are of equal, if not greater, value. The answer to the question that scientists have been working to resolve for well over 70 years, as to how to effectively manage the socioeconomic burden of chronic stress, involves interconnected, yet complementary parts.

The first phase entails the effective delivery of critical knowledge, relevant tools and vital resources to teams to help them to successfully cope with their growing challenges and the relentless demands of the new and evolving reality we are all living in.

The second step centres on buffering and shielding people from modifiable stresses brought on by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Internal conflicts, reduced sense of worth and value, a fading voice in decision-making, prejudice, bias, lack of respect, absent support structures, insecurities and uncertainties need to be systematically reduced if not altogether removed.

The third step requires that existing potential be translated into extraordinary performance. This requires an entirely new brand of leadership. If we want something to change, we need to change first. The entire professional landscape, businesses’ teams’ needs and expectations and the overall pace of life have changed exponentially. This means that leaders need to be faster and more confident in making decisions. At the same time, leaders have to show greater adaptability and be prepared to take greater ownership, not only within their sphere of influence but also of self. The modern leader is a change agent, who is prepared to fail in pursuit of the truth, a visionary who acknowledges the need to act decisively and proactively on issues such as diversity and inclusion, health, environmental issues, personal information security as well as national challenges.

However, beyond the expanded role of guardian and custodian, there is a responsibility to inspire. The greatest ideas, successes and accomplishments invariably stem from a place of inspiration. For this to happen, leaders will have to possess strong inner resources, be able to set the tone, be able to connect with people and lead them. Self-care, self-belief, selflessness, empowerment, openness, optimism and follow through must be merged with focus, clear direction, expanded vision, empathy and humility.

Let us heed the warnings delivered by the world’s leading health agencies pertaining to the growing fragility of human wellbeing. Let us learn from the failures in combating climate change and take a proactive stance in the protection of our people, their families, communities, businesses and livelihoods. In this way, not only will we promote greater organisational success, but also much-needed social change.

South Africa’s 2019 winning World Cup rugby team is the actualisation of this broader vision. Every member of the squad was invested in personal health development and advancement, they were strongly connected and unified, they formed a single identity and were led by a coalition of Siya Kolisi and Rassie Erasmus, who were able to inspire the team fully. This not only promoted the realisation of individual and collective potential, but also the ultimate expression of performance excellence.

In the same way, businesses and their leaders can pull on these core levers that will uplift the lives of their people and also ensure the greatest possible opportunity for continued success and future growth.

Stressproof is published by PanMcMillan South Africa and is available from all good bookstores for R310. 



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