So, you want to change the world... why do you think you can make a difference?
PART 2: Shallow self-knowledge about what's driving you will crumble quickly when you face resistance. So: why you? Why do you care? Tough questions from Liam Black, in the second instalment from his new book, How to lead with purpose: Lessons in life and work from the gloves-off mentor.
Caroline* is sick and tired of the ‘profit only’ motive of the businesses where she has worked since graduation. She’s jacked in her well-paid job with a multinational corporation and, with enough savings to keep the family afloat for two years if they are careful, she intends to start up a fintech business to tackle poverty in the UK.
Caroline is telling me all this over a coffee in a central London cafe. We’ve been connected by a mutual friend and we are both enjoying our first mentoring blind date. This 40-year-old woman is very articulate and obviously really bright. Words tumble out of her as she speaks about the heady mixture of relief, excitement, fear and uncertainty she is experiencing. She tells me about her former bosses who think she’s either inspirational or insane to walk away from a rising career in investment banking.
Her husband Andrew is sceptical though and worries that her decision is the sign of early-onset mid-life crisis. He has told her she has a year to make this work because he doesn’t want all their savings blown. Their three kids and security – not risk-taking and changing the world – are his priority. ‘Our world, our family, is the most important thing,’ he has told her.
- Catch up on the first instalment in Liam Black's book: How to lead with purpose: Clarity and courage
As we start our second cups of coffee, Caroline takes out her notebook and sketches the shape of her business idea and how it will positively help people on low incomes who’ve become trapped in debt by unscrupulous lenders. Over the coming two years I will become very familiar with Caroline’s carefully constructed flow charts and Venn diagrams.
Between slurps of cappuccino, she tells me she wants me to advise her on starting a business, how to avoid stupid mistakes, to introduce her to angels and impact investors, to build a board when the time is right and help shape her story to the world. She flicks through her notebook to show me some names and company logos she’s been working on. Her enthusiasm and energy are off the charts. It’s easy to see how this charisma and drive propelled her up the corporate ladder.
The ‘Why?’ question is the first one I ask of those who want me to mentor them
Eventually, she stops talking and looks straight at me. ‘So, okay Liam, what do you think? Give it to me straight. Am I mad? Can I be a social entrepreneur?’
‘I have one question for you,’ I reply. ‘Why are you doing this?’
Caroline takes a deep breath, exhales loudly and looks past me out at the busy Covent Garden street. After a long pause, she’s back in the room with me. ‘I want to do something with purpose, I want to do work that means something, that matters. I just want to make a fucking difference.’
In this chapter we’ll look at what motivates this desire to make a difference and why it is so important that you understand – as best you can – what it is that is driving you and how your reasons for why you do what you do change over time.
The ‘Why?’ question is the first one I ask of those who want me to mentor them.
‘Why do you care about inequality?’
‘Why is it your job to tackle climate change?’
‘Why is purpose more important than profit to you?’
‘Why do you think you can make the difference in the world you say you want to?’
‘Why are you so special? Maybe you’ll make things worse!’
- Explore more leadership stories in the Pioneers Post Good Leaders podcast
The many ‘whys’
I have heard many and varied answers to the question of ‘Why?’ over my years of mentoring.
For some, purpose is driven by anger at injustice and inequality, especially if that has been experienced first-hand. Ishmael* who still burns with the shame and anger he experienced when he was a boy and his family were shunted from one crappy temporary accommodation to another around the north-west of England after his father lost his job. Or Mary* who will not rest until racism is rooted out of the workplace.
For some of those I’ve mentored their ‘why’ is rooted in religious conviction. Steve* took on a failing charity for the homeless and the very hard yards of reforming it, because for him that was the way to give expression to his strong Christian faith.
Others are continuing a journey started by their parents or, conversely, they are consciously rejecting the values of their upbringing by challenging the status quo.
Older people I have mentored sometimes talk about a guilty conscience after a successful career piling up money and assets. They want to do something to address the inequalities of a system that has richly rewarded them for their hard work and obedience to the prevailing norms of business.
For the children of the seriously rich who have inherited wealth (‘the lucky sperm club’ as one young member of it described it to me) there is a sense of obligation tinged with guilt to use their luck and privilege to make a difference or give something back. (There is another book to be written about the complicated motivations of the children of the seriously wealthy.)
There are those who answer the ‘why’ question with the simple answer that they want to make the world a better place for their children and grandchildren. It’s about legacy.
Some relish the intellectual challenge and adventure of tackling some of the world’s most complex and intractable problems such as climate change and world poverty. As a battle-hardened social entrepreneur once put it to me, ‘It’s bloody hard, Liam, but what problem worth cracking isn’t bloody hard?’
Karen Lynch gave up a well-paid job with Barclays Bank to take on the turnaround of the bottled water social enterprise Belu, which in 2010 was close to collapse with huge debts. Now a well-known and influential figure in the UK social enterprise world and an adviser to the government on its small business policy, Karen dedicated 10 years of her life to building a successful business which would donate millions to water projects around the world. Why? ‘It’s complicated isn’t it? There’s no one thing. I have always had a hatred of waste – of time, money, people’s talent and in the bank there was just so much of this.’
Karen didn’t have a road to Damascus conversion to Changing The World. A serious illness put her out of action and she was confined to bed. ‘I had my “life’s too short” moment and began asking myself “if the next job was my last job what would I do?”’
Karen’s very supportive husband told her to go and find it. ‘I considered becoming a vicar, an organic pig farmer, retraining as a midwife. My husband “actively coached” me away from these options!’
She happened to see an ad in The Guardian for a consultancy gig at Belu and, having never heard the words ‘social enterprise’ or ‘social entrepreneur’, applied. And so began a decade of hard work and inspirational transformation. ‘Why Belu? It was about reducing waste, being able to bring my ferociously commercial instincts to bear on a meaningful challenge. To be honest, I also liked the fact we supported water projects in Africa. I had travelled a lot there and my dad did his national service in Kenya in the fifties.’ There’s never just one reason for doing the work we do, is there?
If you are reading this you probably aspire to put a socially beneficial purpose at the centre of your work and creativity. So, what is your why, reader?
Understanding your motivation is critical because any commitment you make to changing how things are – in business, politics, anywhere – will soon encounter resistance and hostility, overt and hidden, from those for whom the current systems work very well thank you and, perhaps more painfully, from those close to you unwilling to pay the price of reduced income or disrupted family life.
A glib, shallow self-knowledge about why you are doing what you are doing will crumble quickly in the face of opposition or realisation of the scale of the job to be done. ‘He who has a why,’ observed Nietzsche, ‘can endure any how’.
Caroline wants to take on the financial services industry whose leaders profit mightily from a grotesquely deformed system. They are not going to roll over in awe of her decision to step off and start up her own business to take them on.
Muhammad Yunus, founder of Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank and social entrepreneur extraordinaire, believes that people want meaning in their lives and that the only true meaning comes from doing your part to make a better world. ‘Humans have an instinctive, natural desire to make life better for their fellow human beings,’ he has written. ‘Given the chance, people would prefer to live in a world without poverty, disease, ignorance and needless suffering.’ I think he’s right. Or perhaps more accurately, I want to believe he’s right.
Caroline and I have spent many hours talking about what makes her tick and why leaving her well-paid, high-status job to embrace the uncertainty and back-breaking work of starting her ‘tech for good’ business aligns with her deepest sense of a meaningful life.
Never underestimate the power of the ‘fuck you!’ in a social entrepreneur’s motivations
Her motivations are a potent blend of anger at the injustice of a system she knows intimately, intellectual excitement at the challenge of inventing new products and platforms to reach underserved markets, and a deep desire to create something her children will be proud their mum built.
In her really candid moments, Caroline speaks about the future pleasure of proving wrong those who think she’s made a bad career move. Never underestimate the power of the ‘fuck you!’ in a social entrepreneur’s motivations!
Zealotry and daddy issues
If you’d stopped me in my activist, demo-going, anti-racist twenties and asked me why I was doing all that rather than finding a Proper Job With A Pension, I would probably have given you an answer blending liberation theology and its ‘option for the poor’ (Gustavo Guttierez, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero) with left-wing politics (Noam Chomsky, Saul Alinsky) and a bright green splash of Irish republicanism.
No doubt these were all strong influences on me and I was a passionate devotee; at times, I fear, a zealot. But with the benefit of some 40 years’ hindsight, looking back at that needy, driven, contradictory young man, I see so clearly that a core part of what was driving him – me – was the seeking of approval from an absent father. If I could change the world, maybe he’d notice me. Long story, for another time. (Show me a male social entrepreneur and I’ll show you a man with daddy issues!)
The roots of what drive us are tangled and often unclear – especially to ourselves. Life, as misery guts Sören Kierkegaard wrote, has to be lived forward but can only be understood backwards, and that is doubly so for those who opt for a life dedicated to a social purpose. What we believed was driving the decisions we took at 25 looks very different from the vantage points of 45 or 55.
The roots of what drive us are tangled and often unclear – especially to ourselves
John Elkington is in his seventies and remains as active and agitated about the state of the world as he ever was. John is a leading figure in the world of climate change and sustainability and the author of umpteen books including The Power of Unreasonable People, an influential contribution to the field of social entrepreneurship. John coined the phrases ‘triple bottom line’, ‘green consumer’ and ‘people, profit, planet’. He has spoken everywhere worth speaking, from the UN to the World Economic Forum, and has been consulted by (and clashed with) CEOs across industries and sectors. No event on corporate sustainability is complete without a John Elkington keynote provocation.
John was that voice crying in the wilderness for years, warning that systems collapse lay ahead and profound disruptive change must be confronted.
Today he is a sustainability rock star but, objectively, hasn’t he failed?
- Read more from John Elkington in Moving our needle: the breakthrough compass
When I spoke to him for this book I asked him what the future looks like. ‘A screaming nightmare. That future is here though, isn’t it? Floods and fires everywhere. 20% of wetlands burned. Only 3% of the world’s animal life is wild.’
What keeps him going? What’s his ‘why’?
John is rightly wary of glib sloganising or amateur psychologising. ‘I don’t know, really, why I do what I do. Who knows how things would have gone had my life been different? But, at the core, there is this sense that we must increasingly take into account the interests of future generations of all life in everything that we do.’
Clearly he loves what he does (‘I can’t imagine retiring’), and being part of something bigger than himself seems to lie at the heart of why he has committed himself to changing a world that refuses to change quickly enough in the face of the epochal challenges which are upon us. ‘I do accept that I may be delusional,’ he tells me. ‘Behind everything I do is an understanding that we may crash and burn as a civilisation.’
Both his father and grandfather were fighter pilots who bequeathed to John a warrior element. ‘I like a good set-to – long as I don’t get killed!’ A childhood spent following his father’s military career around the world left John with an enduring sense of displacement, at odds with the world, an ‘anywhere’, with a ferocious curiosity and the willingness to live in ambiguity and contradiction. ‘For most of my life I have tried to learn new things, never knowing where that will take me. Perhaps I’m addicted to uncertainty?’ Looking back, he sees that he forced the many organisations he co-founded to remain unstable, always ready to change, freeing them to make it up as they went along.
Looking back, he sees that he forced the many organisations he co-founded to remain unstable, always ready to change
He has targeted what Bill Sharpe has called ‘pockets of the future’, often to be found where science and economics overlap, and has always discovered enough people, grassroots activists as well as corporate leaders, who shared his sense of urgency. ‘Being part of change is always exciting but in there too is guilt about what homo sapiens is doing and a bloody-mindedness about not giving up... I’m into my seventies and I’ve been working at this for 50 years, but I think my career’s just starting.’
For John the next 10 to 15 years are going to be the most exciting, challenging and politically dangerous of his entire working life. ‘We know what needs to be done and there is a sense of urgency building all around. Now really is our time. It really is now or never.’
* Name has been changed
Photos courtesy of the author; Belu; Skoll World Forum
Extracted from chapter one of How to lead with purpose: Lessons in life and work from the gloves-off mentor, by Liam Black. Check back soon for part three in this serialisation.
The book is available with a special 25% discount for Pioneers Post readers on both the printed and e-book versions; use code GLOVESOFF25 at the checkout.