Business and organizational leadership is changing. It is changing slowly—sometimes it feels painfully so—but it is changing. Progress is being made toward equal representation in leadership, which will lead to all employees being valued for the unique perspectives and experiences they bring.
Berrett-Koehler authors have been on the front lines for decades, writing about innovative leadership paradigms that represent a fundamental shift in how managers and executives approach their roles and their teams. Our readers love these concepts, but a question persists: How do these game-changing ideas practically work in the field, with real people, leaders, and companies?
The three leaders we are profiling, who are currently leading some of the world’s most successful companies and brands, are examples of the leadership transformation in progress. Their leadership styles reflect their individuality, playing on their talents, challenging their fears, and overcoming biases to serve a diverse workforce. Though these particular leaders might seem like superstars—and they certainly are—some of the principles they have embraced are rooted in teachable paradigms. They’ve incorporated these forward-thinking concepts into their everyday and future-facing visionary mindsets to bring out the best in their people while also reshaping leadership through commitment and intention.
Brian Chesky, CEO, Airbnb
Airbnb is an example of the classic startup success story: a company that transformed from a new idea between a couple of friends to a multibillion-dollar success. Much like many other startups-turned-major-tech-companies, the organization’s culture is relatively young and was built largely from scratch. Brian Chesky is one of Airbnb’s cofounders, and came into the role of CEO free from preset notions of the “best” ways to lead a business. As Leigh Gallagher wrote in her book, The Airbnb Story: How Three Ordinary Guys Disrupted an Industry, Made Billions … and Created Plenty of Controversy, “Those who know Chesky say he is relentlessly asking questions, taking notes, and trying to identify ways he can improve.” Those who subscribe to older, more command-and-control leadership styles might find this surprising and work under the assumption that the leader is in charge because they have all the answers (or appear to), but Chesky and Airbnb’s long-term success paints a story that is anything but conventional.
When asked what a CEO in a tough position could do when faced with a difficult crisis, Chesky said (as reported by CNBC), “Take a step back and have some humility.” Sound familiar? Recall one of our longtime best sellers, Humble Inquiry, the first installment of the Humble Leadership Series by Ed Schein. Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust by Edgar H. and Peter A. Schein focuses on the practice of humility in a leadership position, breaking down each element of what this character trait looks like in practice.
Humble leadership accepts that employees are a key driver of success and that collaboration, trust, engagement, and the confidence to innovate are the best ways to achieve that success. The Scheins write, “Seeing each other as whole persons is primarily a choice that we can make. We already know how to be personal in our social and private lives. Humble leadership involves making that conscious choice in our work lives.”
Indra Nooyi, Former CEO, PepsiCo
Indra Nooyi took over as PepsiCo’s CEO in 2006, and in her 12 years on the job, the company’s revenue nearly doubled. After her successful run at PepsiCo, she joined the Amazon Board of Directors in 2019.
Nooyi, a champion for diversity in the workplace, is also a big believer in empowering employees to take charge of their goals and dreams. At a conference in March 2019, she told the crowd (as reported by Franchise Times) what she would tell her younger self, characterized by three Cs:
Competence: “If you’re not very, very good at something, nobody is going to notice you.”
Courage: “There’s no point in being competent if you don’t have the courage to talk about it.”
Communication: “As a leader, you have to change the minds of so many people.”
Nooyi’s advice is poignant for leaders and employees alike. Managers who display competence, courage, and communication inspire all three in the people they lead. Dare yourself and others to dream big, and nothing is impossible. Nooyi’s rise to success—and the success she facilitated at PepsiCo—is proof of that. Jack Nasher, author of Convinced!: How to Prove Your Competence and Win People Over, offers a step-by-step guide that takes a deep dive into how to build competence and, most importantly according to Nooyi, how to communicate your competence to increase your influence. For Nasher and Nooyi, competence is the most highly valued professional trait, but it doesn’t speak for itself; you have to convey competence to get the recognition you deserve.
Paul Polman, Retired CEO, Unilever
In the years before Paul Polman retired at the end of 2018, he had a mission for Unilever, the corporate giant behind brands such as Ben & Jerry’s, Axe, Vaseline, and Lipton: make a difference. He led the company to adopt sustainable growth policies, reduce its environmental footprint, and deliver a net positive social impact.
Polman was committed to serving not only the greater good, but also the employees he trusted to help Unilever achieve its highly aspirational goals. In an interview with Forbes, he said, “You cannot be sustainable as a company if you do not have a sustainable workforce. Physical well-being is the starting point, but then you have emotional well-being, mental well-being, and spiritual well-being (what we call purpose). … Most important is purpose, which is really what gives people the energy to get out of bed and do all of this.”
Polman’s philosophy aligns nearly perfectly with the style of servant leadership—the idea that leaders lead for the benefit of their employees and not the other way around. In Unilever’s case, servant leadership (explored in greater detail in the excellent compilation Servant Leadership in Action: How You Can Achieve Great Relationships and Results) reinforced employees’ commitment to serving the greater good.
Ultimately, your leadership style is your own, shaped by your experiences, goals, and beliefs. But learning from the greats and time-tested leadership styles can help you make a tangible impact and change in the world. These three groundbreaking leaders have been successful seeing people as people and recognizing the potential employees have to do great things. Let their example inspire you to find new ways to inspire those you lead.