This Mindset Will Help Train a New Generation of Wellbeing Leaders

For so long, we have nurtured 'silo' thinkers and doers, encouraging leaders to acquire deep knowledge and focus on big results in specialized areas
This Mindset Will Help Train a New Generation of Wellbeing Leaders
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Senior lecturer in social entrepreneurship, University of Queensland Business School
8 min read
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Contradiction lies at the very foundation of our existence. Competing forces shape almost every aspect of our lives: masculine and feminine, progression and decline, independence and interdependence, spiritual and material.

This is true in a business sense as well. Stakeholders compete with shareholders, economic impacts are weighed against environmental impacts, and priorities differ between short-term growth and long-term sustainability.

For so long, especially in the business sector, we have nurtured “silo” thinkers and doers, encouraging leaders to acquire deep knowledge and focus on big results in specialized areas. This has got us far but it is unlikely to get us beyond the major issues dominating our time. Take the top issues: climate change, mental health, food security, immigration and extremism. There is a government minister appointed to oversee each of these – silo experts. But what attention and effort is given to understanding how all these issues are interconnected? Maybe it’s their interconnection that is the key to disarming them and ushering in a better way of being.

The Right Mindset

Instead of focusing on how to solve each issue in isolation, we should first adjust how we frame issues in the first place. The problem is that we are using silo – or singular – thinking to understand paradoxes, or AND issues. The time is ripe for a new type of leader to shake things up, one who embraces the AND paradox. Leaders who adopt an AND mindset have the potential to shape policy, drive business, lead change and achieve results across not just one area of specialization but across the full spectrum of society.

Understanding the patterns that connect issues requires two things:

  1. Identifying the overall issue that unites each issue – the whole.
  2. Understanding the parts of that whole.

The “whole” that emerges invariably reveals all of these issues – or parts – relate to issues of wellbeing. Business researchers currently work to a cross-discipline model that draws on eight components that comprise wellbeing: economic, environmental, social, cultural, physical, psychological, spiritual and material. What requires further investigation are the various ANDs that exist between these eight components.

  • Economic AND environmental – how do we use resources for economic growth AND sustain the natural environment?
  • Social AND cultural – how can we be one integrated society AND culturally diverse at the same time?
  • Material AND spiritual – how do we enjoy material benefits but also find fulfillment and contentment in non-material things?
  • Economic AND social – how do we make money yet also enable social equity?

Furthermore, we are trying to understand how to synergise each of these parts up to a wholeness of wellbeing, and how this works for individuals, business and society. Then we have a platform for a new type of leader – a wellbeing leader.

The wellbeing leadership paradigm helps leaders with two problems:

  1. What is wellbeing?
  2. How can wellbeing be achieved across multiple competing demands?

How Wholeness Works

Let’s look at wellbeing as a dynamic equilibrium of wholeness. Leaving out any of the eight components sets a system – whether an individual, business or larger society – up for costly corrective action. Wholeness only works when attention is paid to the integration of all eight components working together as a system of counter-balance. Dynamic equilibrium means that this integration consists of ongoing, skilful counter-balancing as circumstances and priorities change. But we don’t train leaders for either wholeness or counter-balance. We train them in silo thinking. We train them to create “half-worlds”.

What is a half-world? It’s the world we create when we choose just one side of an interdependent pair of variables. We do this every time we create a silo because we artificially divorce an interdependent pair and lose the importance of AND. Opposites don’t exist independently but interdependently yet, for simplicity’s sake, we have institutionalized silo thinking and doing.

For example, business has based corporate life on shareholder value and then wonders why organizations pursue this even at the expense of the interdependent opposite – stakeholders. Politically, we swing from the left and right which largely institutionalize the half-worlds of liberty and equality, respectively. We have misunderstood and failed to leverage the necessary AND between these values.

Let’s look at shareholders AND stakeholders through the lens of the Royal Commission into the banking sector. Shareholders AND customers are interdependent and should counter-balance each other for a more sustainable and ethical result. Institutionalizing a half-world by tying bonuses to shareholder value creation instead of outcomes for shareholders AND stakeholders sidelines the ethical obligation to leverage interdependence. Ignoring this ethical obligation imposes large costs on present and future generations which could have been avoided if we better respected the importance of counter-balance. The AND requires us to treat counter-balance as an ethical value.

Financial gains are not the only ethical obligation of leaders, rather, whether they can make money AND build wellbeing at the same time. Many business leaders achieve financial results but at great cost to staff morale and burnout. Or a government can manage an economy to surplus but do so while other components of wellbeing are worsening, such as mental health or social cohesion. A key question to answer is what is your money-to-wellbeing ratio? What has been the effect of your economic management on the wellbeing of your stakeholders or populations?

Focusing on the interdependence of economic growth AND environmental sustainability, avoids the extreme downsides of focusing on either in isolation. Growing an economy by focusing on high-polluting industries may create economic value in the short term but destroy environmental value in both the short and long terms. Leveraging interdependence is not a choice but a structural fact of how things work together. Wealth created from a polluting economic activity will eventually have to be diverted to pay for the clean-up. The cost of failing to respect and leverage interdependence is much greater than leveraging the interdependence in the first place.

We have to become experts at interdependence AND independence, not independence alone. In another example, it makes no sense to prioritize making our own territory great as though we live independently of the globe – we must factor in both national AND global. National-only is a half-world and half-worlds pay a price for ignoring the other half.

The paradox of masculine AND feminine is particularly salient in the current climate of “strongman” politics. Traditionally masculine characteristics – independence, competition, being tough, strength, survival of the fittest – have their value but also their downside and if left unchecked, voters find favour among the feminine – cooperation, relationship, compassion, nurturing, patience. Some see switches between masculine and feminine values as normal cycles but we require a generation of leader who understands how these characteristics counter-balance each other and are able to flow between them in real-time and in policy-setting. Such leaders know how to flow between the masculine and feminine as the situation requires. Half-world leaders only excel at one and lack the flexibility to adjust if the masculine or feminine overbalances and becomes more costly than beneficial.

But what does this mean for wellbeing? Wellbeing is a dynamic equilibrium of wholeness. Masculine societies are not whole because they fail to integrate the feminine. So too, businesses which prioritise shareholder value and treat social responsibility and environmental sustainability as sideshows are not whole because they fail to recognise that wholeness is achieved through counter-balancing opposites and so, aren’t maximising wellbeing.

Successful wellbeing leaders must:

  1. Make wellbeing the central mission
  2. Create wellbeing value on all eight components
  3. View the relationship between the eight as pairs of opposites that serve to counter-balance each other
  4. Assess whether this results in a better way of being for all concerned rather than the half-world approach

Leaders operating from this wellbeing paradigm are different. They embody commitment to the conscious attention and counter-balance between all eight components. They can recognize early if they are over-invested in any one direction and understand the corresponding counter-balance required. They know the components which act as opposites and are good at recognizing which wellbeing components need counter-balancing in any one situation. They respect both and don’t try to avoid the tension and contradiction between them. When facing issues, wellbeing leaders can reprogram by asking: “What is the AND opportunity here?”

How might things be different if we institutionalized the ethics of AND? Perhaps we might see a Minister for the Economy AND the Environment. A Minister for Social Cohesion AND Cultural Diversity. A Minister for Physical AND Mental Health. Think of the value proposition this might hold for a generation longing for hope. Perhaps it means a Parliament not based solely on adversarial competition but on competing AND collaborating. Here the performance of the Parliament is measured by how well this AND is leveraged for greater wellbeing outcomes. Consider the more noble ethical example this sets for our children rather than the politics which results from an over-emphasis on adversarial competition, of scorn, derision and falsehood.

Two halves make a whole so healing the half-world is achieved through wholeness which results from counter-balancing opposites. Who among us is ready to claim the mantle of a wellbeing leader who ushers in a new era of the ethics of AND?

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