Starting Fresh

What mindset and leadership skills will help you thrive in 2021?

The mindset of a good business leader for an inclusive future

The mindset of a good business leader for an inclusive future

By Caroline Ashley, Forum for the Future

The 2020s desperately need effective business leaders, creating a more sustainable inclusive future. CHARM summarises the top skills that I think leaders need to be effective. I don’t mean just being charming – though something between persuasive and popular is not bad. I mean that an effective leader needs to excel in:

  • CH – navigating Change
  • A – setting Ambitious future-fit goals
  • R – with appropriate appetite for Risk
  • M – while working on Mindsets

CH is for navigating change

Leaders need to navigate turbulence, with eyes on the short, medium and long term all at once. How they respond to crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic is important; some have responded with more integrity and innovation than others, pivoting factories or apps for public good versus simply cancelling orders from suppliers who had already purchased materials. But navigating change well is not just about passive response to, or preparation for, events. Effective leaders constantly refresh their understanding of how change happens and of the agency of their business in shaping change, including their role in networks, in influencing policy, informing consumers, and setting expectations. As Forum for the Future’s CEO has argued in a letter to Sustainability Leaders, the decade of delivery will not live up to expectations unless they are skilled in understanding patterns, networks, complexity, resisting forces, and agency. An example I like is that when BP committed to net zero, it also left 3 trade associations, shifting its weight as an actor in change.

an old compass
Effective leaders must be good navigators. Image by Aaron Burden on Unsplah

A is for ambitious future-fit goals

The progress of inclusive and sustainable business has to date been incremental. How can we do better on ambition? How can we benchmark performance and then outperform others? The Paris Agreement to combat climate change helped break through that mindset amongst governments, getting agreement on an ambitious aim, then progressively reviewing how to get there – the ‘ratchet’ tactic for achieving ambition. The same must apply to business leaders.

A vision that is ‘ambitious’ should mean truly future-fit – aligned with a future of net zero carbon and no poverty. If leaders first set as their vision, then they will have to ask what can we do, what is enough and what is the gap we must bridge? For example, a commitment to support smallholder suppliers to increase earnings is incremental. A commitment to eradicate poverty in supply-sheds, working on living income, diversification and with partners might take more years, but is future-fit.

Do something great
Leaders need to set ambitious goals. Image by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

R is for risk appetite

Leading a company into a sustainable inclusive future is not risk free. Quite the opposite. It will only be achievable if leaders embrace the innovation gap. “If we know now exactly how we’re going to achieve a goal that we set for 2030, it won’t be ambitious enough.” So said a leader at beverage company Diageo to my colleague James, as he reflected in his blog sharing lessons from Diageo’s recent new sustainability strategy.

It’s too easy to slip into thinking that risk strategy is all about minimisation and mitigation. But the first step is recognising the appetite for risk, and then decide how to manage risk and ensure staff know that taking risks is OK.

M is for mindset

I’m all in favour of ambitious business commitments. And even more adamant that commitments are nothing if not backed up by action. So what businesses do and say really matters. But how we think and what we all assume matters too, and ultimately have huge impact on how much change is possible. Mindsets tend to reflect the narratives, assumptions, and social norms that we all hold about how the world works, and what is relevant or irrelevant in understanding it.

It is often easier to spot competing narratives issue by issue. Is tax something to avoid? Or is tax payment something to be proud of? I think assumptions are changing on that. Is unpaid housework drudgery to minimise or something that is of high value to recognise? My former colleagues at Oxfam are working hard to get it recognised and valued. Is investment in labour rights, producer organisation, and transparency a way to minimise risk of harm or reputational damage, or a way to build better supply chains? Is carbon reduction a necessity to keep up with changing times, or an opportunity to create business value in entirely new ways?

Two bos climbing a mountaintop
Mindsets matter. Image by Sasin Tipchai on Pixabay

Our recent review of the future of sustainability as we emerge from Covid-19 identified four different and competing trajectories out of Covid-19, all with contrasting mindsets: ‘There is not enough to go around so we must compete and retreat’; or ‘technology will solve our problems if we worry less about privacy’; or ‘there is no new normal so flexibility and opportunism rule’; or ‘yes we can seize this moment to transform the system and regenerate our societies and ecosystems.’ These represent competing mindsets about the future of capitalism. One of the fundamental distinctions is about profit: is profit the purpose to which all business operations defer, or is profit the means for businesses and companies to create social value?

Effective leaders are aware of mindsets and assumptions – of their own and of others. This awareness makes it much easier to understand blockages and opposition, and to shape long term change. Effective leaders will recognise, challenge them, and contribute to reshaping them.

Blog post

Three Powerful Mindsets of the Successful Mission-Driven Leader

Alex Counts draws on more than 25 year of experience to share three powerful mental models that can be used to amplify strengths while managing blind spots, including rethinking failure and dissent. He also points to practical ways a mission-driven…
Table of contents

graphic summary


Learn more about mindsets and mental health by reading this fourteenth edition of the online magazine on Inclusive Business! The illustration was developed by Christopher Malapitan, a visual practitioner and trainer based in Brussels.…


Hit Refresh!

The world has been turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic, and mental strength and mental health will be critical for leaders going forward, contends Royston Braganza of Grameen Capital India.

Royston Braganza

feature story

The mindset of the leader: What new skills does an inclusive business leader need now?

The global Covid-19 pandemic has changed business as usual and therefore the role of leaders has become more critical than ever. How can inclusive business leaders inspire their employees to address deep-seated problems and tackle important goals? In this issue of CLUED-iN, we hear from experts and entrepreneurs who describe the key skills and powerful mindsets inclusive leaders need to be successful now.

Alexandra Harris

A crucial skill for a new generation of leaders: moral imagination

Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen makes the case that reimagining new systems depends on developing a set of hard skills once considered “soft,” grounded in moral imagination. She explains why educational institutions should play a role in developing these competencies in the leaders of the future.

The mindset of a good business leader for an inclusive future

Caroline Ashley uses the acronym CHARM to explain the competencies required for inclusive leaders moving towards a sustainable future, drawing on research on post-Covid-19 trajectories conducted by Forum for the Future.

Three Powerful Mindsets of the Successful Mission-Driven Leader

Alex Counts draws on more than 25 year of experience to share three powerful mental models that can be used to amplify strengths while managing blind spots, including rethinking failure and dissent. He also points to practical ways a mission-driven leader can apply these mindsets at work.

Navigating the pandemic: Protecting livelihoods and continuing communication

Ten years ago, Rajiv Sharma founded Empower Pragati, a social enterprise offering vocational skills training to under-privileged youth. In this interview, he discusses why he believes in “brutal transparency,” how his organization has addressed mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic, and why it is important for a leader to focus on collaboration, not competition.

A Tale of Two Leaders

Rajen Makhijani believes that we should use the rigors of the investment process to approach leadership, using a results-based framework. He uses the example of two very different leaders to explain the Leadership by Results approach, which seeks to set big tangible goals and enable a shift of underlying mindsets.

Why mental health matters

How can inclusive leaders address mental health issues? Practitioners from Asia, Africa and Europe share their insights and evaluate how Covid-19 has changed their way of thinking.