How to create economic and social value simultaneously

“Higher ambition” leaders are leaders who work to realise the full potential of their firms to create superior and lasting economic value, and at the same time to create superior social value, according to Michael Beer, Flemming Norrgren, Russell Eisenstat, Nathaniel Foote, Tobias Fredberg and in their book Higher Ambition: How Great Leaders Create Economic and Social Value. The book describes insights gained from interviewing 36 “higher ambition” leaders from India, Europe and North America.

Readers who are accustomed to the rigorous research methods of Jim Collins may not be impressed with the methodology adopted by the authors. The leaders who were interviewed for the book were chosen on the basis of direct experience of the authors, recommendations from trusted colleagues, and lists of most admired companies and best places to work. Their companies had to have better-than-average growth rates and the CEOs had to have expressed concern with developing a people-centric high-commitment culture.

These are somewhat loose criteria, leading to the suspicion that some of the research subjects may have been strong “higher ambition” leaders while others may have just been making up the numbers. As the authors acknowledge, the book does not stand as authority for the proposition that “higher ambition” leaders produce better results or create a happier workforce than any other type of leader. Instead the authors have produced “an exploratory or hypothesis-generating study”.

Two things which I enjoyed were the interesting stories about individual leaders and the issues that they had struggled with and overcome, and the tables at the end of chapters 3 to 7 which compare and contrast common leadership patterns with the approach of “higher ambition” leaders relating to forging strategic identity, building a shared commitment to excel, creating community out of diversity, “sisu” (courageous and perservering) leadership, and committing to collective leadership.

I found the authors’ analysis quite insightful, leading me to wonder whether the book could have been better presented as a guide to “higher ambition” leadership based on the authors’ consulting experience, rather than as the results of a somewhat dubious research project.

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