Reimagining Leadership: Key Lessons for Modern Executives

In a moderated discussion Eli Moe-Helgesen, Bendik Blindheim and Rebecca Henderson shared key lessons for modern executives to transform their leadership style. 

The panel members began by sharing their perspectives on the biggest changes that have occurred in leadership. 

Eli reflected on her 25 years in the corporate world, noting that when she began working, the typical leader was a male and not very compassionate. Since then, one of the most significant changes she has seen is in how leaders motivate people. “It [used to be] about achieving the company goals and not about purpose,” she said.  

Now, she notices a different approach, one that requires care and empathy. “When I think of chaos, the number one quality for a leader is adaptability,” she said. “You need to be able to understand the risks and opportunities, grasp the situation, and work with your people, motivate them and provide direction.” 

“The number one quality for a leader is adaptability.” – Eli Moe-Helgesen 

Bendik has spent his career working on transformational leadership. As he reflected on the global crises that have occurred across the world in recent history, he also noted how leaders have been forced to adapt.  
“There have been different leadership styles during those 15 years,” he said. “Transactional, then transformational, then networking and relating. What has changed is the rapidness of how you have to adapt your leadership style.”

When asked what hasn’t changed, Bendik said, “I am a strong believer that you need to be authentic as an executive. Your heart can take you very far as long as you show that you really care.” He encouraged leaders to model this for the entire organization. “It starts with you,” he said. “Hold the leadership team collectively accountable.”

Rebecca agreed with Bendik that your heart can take you far. And she said, “In chaos, you need your heart even more.” 

In a chaotic environment, many leaders assume they must use structure and logic. “If you rely on your heart, that doesn’t mean you turn off your brain or the analytical side of what you’re doing,” Rebecca said. “But your heart gives you a compass, a sense of what to do and what’s really important.”

“Your heart gives you a compass.” – Rebecca Henderson 

Traditionally, the north star in business has been to maximize profits for shareholders. Rebecca and the other panel members believe this purpose has evolved. Now, Rebecca said, “It’s to build a healthy thriving enterprise, beloved by employees and customers, that makes a difference in the world and makes enough profit to satisfy shareholders.”

Rebecca asserted that we’re not going to get through this crisis because we have to make money. However, she was careful to clarify that “We’re not talking about throwing profit out the window.” She simply wants leaders to think about purpose in a much different way. 

“If you persuade the people you work with and for that you’re trying to do something different in the world, and they are a part of it, you are going to see improvements in productivity,” she said. 

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Eli Moe-Helgesen is the National Leader of Audits and Trust Solutions for PwC Norway. Bendik Blindheim is Partner at ISCO Group. Rebecca Henderson is a professor, author, and authority on reimagining capitalism.

The Heart of Leadership Today

The idea of leading with your heart and creating purpose resonates with Eli, as well. She believes this is part of building trust. Today’s leaders are in it for the long term, and inspiring the next generation to join them will require a meaningful proposition. “There are a lot of lost opportunities if you don’t acknowledge that it’s more than profit,” she said. 

When asked what makes a successful leader today, Bendik said, “If you behave in a certain way and I understand where it comes from, I will forgive that behavior. Leaders who dare to show their true vulnerability will receive a lot of forgiveness.”

“You need to understand in order to forget.” – Bendik Blindheim

He believes leaders can truly mobilize for change when vulnerability permeates the organization and the leadership team. He shared a personal example of demonstrating vulnerability, telling his story of being adopted from Bangladesh and struggling to find other children to play with where he grew up. His experience made him tough and taught him to be ambitious. On his leadership journey, he realized, “If I am going to lead people with my own ambitions, I can’t lead anyone without being authentic.”

When asked what leaders need to do to share long-term vision, Rebecca said, “Humans are creatures of narrative. We love stories.” She encourages leaders to tell stories about what their organization can do and why that needs doing. Describe the difference you can make in the world and what it will feel like doing it. “When we’re really connected [to the story], we can think about the long term,” she said.  

A Call to Action

Members of the panel left leaders at Oslo Business Forum with a call to action, offering practical steps they can take to begin transforming their leadership style today.

 “One key aspect is communication,” Eli said. She acknowledged there are things we say and don’t say, but when things are unpredictable, we should speak about that. She believes there is no shame in a leader saying, “I don’t know the answer, but let’s find out.”

Eli was asked how leaders can effectively communicate with large teams of 1,000 people or more. “Today, we have so many good communication tools, but the important thing is to talk through your people,” she said. Managers must be equipped to communicate with their teams.

Rebecca shared two key takeaways for leaders. First, she said, “In the organization where you work, uncover the purpose and do one thing to help advance the purpose.” She believes that motivation and performance will increase if you build a purpose and embed it in the organization.

The second recommendation Rebecca shared is this: take care of yourself. It is important for leaders to take care of themselves to remain grounded and able to guide others. “Take ten minutes every day and do something that really feeds you and reconnects you to what is most fundamental and important to your soul,” she said. 

She encouraged leaders not to think about this moment as if it’s the catastrophic unraveling of our society. Instead, she pressed them to think of it as an adventure. “You can do something about the moment we’re in,” she said. “Norway can be a catalyst for what needs to happen, so take care of yourself.”

Key Points

  • In today’s chaotic environment, the number one quality of a leader is adaptability. 
  • Leaders must be authentic and willing to be vulnerable. Vulnerability builds trust and elicits forgiveness. 
  • An organization’s purpose is about more than profit. Build a healthy organization that makes a difference in the world. 
  • Communication is a key aspect of navigating uncertainty.
  • Leaders must take care of themselves to remain grounded and able to guide others.

Questions to Consider

  • What are the stories you’re telling in your organization? How can you use storytelling to motivate people?
  • How have you demonstrated authenticity and vulnerability with your team?
  • What is your organization’s purpose? What can you do to move your people closer to acting from purpose?
  • What is one thing you can do today to transform your leadership in these chaotic times?

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