Paul Polman: 21st century leader

“If you want to change consumer habits – if you want to connect for change in society – we have to use our brands. And the most challenging thing is to give all your brands a social purpose. I don’t believe that any brand should be there, if it doesn’t serve a purpose that actually makes this a better world.”

In short, according to Unilever CEO, Paul Polman, a company or brand that doesn’t serve a higher social purpose doesn’t deserve to exist.  (Go figure that I should have a massive man-crush on him!)

Those few lines above represent just one of many memorable passages in a speech Polman gave to a rapt audience as part of the Hult Visionary Speaker Series in London a couple of weeks ago – a speech in which he not only touched on, but also clearly exhibited, the habits/characteristics that he believes are essential to successful leadership in 21st century:

  • To be authentic and purpose-driven
  • To be systemic thinkers (able to unravel complexity)
  • To be comfortable with total transparency (no transparency = no trust)
  • To collaborate and forge coalitions (capable of creating tipping points)
  • To have a long-term orientation

Hult has kindly made a video of his speech, and the ensuing Q&A session, available on Youtube. If you can find 90 minutes to spare to watch the whole thing, I really suggest you do. If you’re more strapped for time, maybe try jumping in around 49 minutes.

An aside:

Watching this back again last night, I was reminded of one of the very first pieces I ever posted on this blog – my reactions to a similar keynote address given by Ray Anderson, founder of Interface, to an audience at Ashridge over five years ago.

For me, the similarities are striking.

Both delivered some very stark messages, but did so with great authenticity, humility and humour – a very down-to-earth style that made those messages hit home, without ever feeling ‘preachy’.

Just as Ray was, so Paul seems to be more than happy to get out in front of conventional competitive thinking and take bold action. His abandonment of quarterly reporting is a great example; likewise his comments during the Q&A session on more collaborative businesses models (starting around 1:25:00).

I closed out my post about Ray with the wish that we might find more leaders like him in business and in public life. In Paul Polman, we most certainly have.


One thought on “Paul Polman: 21st century leader

  1. Pingback: Building a better working world: Unilever style | Live Long and Prosper

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