There was one big question for the leaders who attended our Connecting Leaders event: What could happen if all of us were to think big, bold, and brave to drive purpose and change to the next level? To help explore that question, Boyan Slat, founder of The Ocean Cleanup, and our own Global Head of Sustainability, Rachael De Renzy Channer, candidly shared their journeys of how connecting personal values with their roles can unleash courage and purpose, leading to greater impact.
Weaving Purpose into Your Life
Like many leaders, Slat’s journey didn’t start with the intention of cofounding an organization. Instead, he set out to find a solution to a problem close to his heart: plastic pollution. This concern occupied his mind from a young age, fueled by an experience of encountering more plastic than fish while scuba diving and learning about the severe environmental consequences of plastic pollution. Inspired to combat this issue, Slat decided to drop out of his aerospace engineering studies at Delft University and started pitching his idea to several university professors. He was also invited by TedX Delft to talk about his project, raising awareness and inspiring many people to invest in his cause. This momentum enabled Slat to build a team and launch a crowdfunding campaign, which led to the founding of The Ocean Cleanup. Today, The Ocean Clean Up’s technology is far past the prototype stage and has reached “proof of concept.” The technology is being used in many oceans and rivers worldwide to rid the waters of plastic particles.
For Slat, purpose permeates both his personal and professional life, shaping how he collaborates with and empowers his team. He recognizes that everyone possesses unique strengths, and by accurately identifying these strengths, a leader can harness the team's full potential through complementary abilities.
Don’t Wait for the Title to Be the Change
De Renzy Channer’s path to leadership had some turns. She spent 12 years in the Army, where a large part of her military career focused on leadership and development. After retiring from the Army, De Renzy Channer moved into the corporate world, working in strategy. At times, she found herself clashing with leaders, often due to different views and a company culture that didn’t fully embody the values they preached. But after joining Egon Zehnder, she was able to connect her values with her everyday work, finding the perfect equilibrium of combining passion with work. But the work remains difficult. One of her biggest frustrations comes from a global study, which found that 88% of CEOs interviewed acknowledged the importance of environmental impact and climate change and labeled it as a top priority. However, when it comes to action in decision-making, environmental impact is a bottom priority.
To elevate environmental impact as a priority, De Renzy Channer believes that we should all see ourselves as leaders and not wait until we have a certain title to take action. “We are at a transition point where we need cross-boundary thinking,” she said. “We need orchestrators, we need people who lead by vision and empower others”
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Every Individual Can Be a Force for Good, Regardless of Title
It's easy to underestimate the power and influence that each of us holds, but every person has the potential to make a significant impact. One small step we can take to create a bigger difference over time is to examine how we embody our organization's values daily. Unfortunately, in many workplaces, there can be a disconnect between sentiments and actions. "My challenge at the companies I previously worked for was that the organization's values were written on walls and mugs, but no one really lived up to them," explained De Renzy Channer. "I didn't necessarily see that in my daily work nor in the products and services."
The good news is that there is a leadership role for everyone to drive change, regardless of job title or position. Real change can come from many different places, and we're at a crucial point where we need cross-boundary thinking to tackle the complex challenges facing our world today.
Overcoming Failures with Resilience and Creativity
The road to achieving great change is rarely a smooth one. Slat shared his own story of The Ocean Cleanup's mission to rid the world's oceans of plastic pollution, with a particular focus on a garbage patch that is three times the size of France. Slat and his team of engineers went through several attempts to design the right mechanisms and systems to do the job, learning from mistakes, and determined to keep trying until they got it right.
Avoid Letting Binary Thinking Hinder Potential Partnerships
Because no one can tackle the world's greatest challenges alone, working with partners—sometimes unlikely ones—is key. Slat said he chooses to focus on shared outcomes versus which companies may be seen as "good" for the environment or "bad." "People can say it is a form of greenwashing for corporates to team up with not-for-profits like us, but I don't see it that way," he said. "The biggest challenge is the fact that oceans are international waters, so geographically no one feels the responsibility. We need to see the desire from companies to partner with us, which gives us the means to solve this issue."
Be a Courageous Mouse Rather Than an Excellent Sheep
Our educational and corporate systems influence how we define success—there are goals and measures, and the fastest, smartest, and strongest performers win. But we need more leaders or at least skeptical followers who question the status quo and speak up and act, regardless of their role or level in the organization. "Don't wait for the label of CEO to be the change," De Renzy Channer said. "We need the imaginations of many." Slat noted that he never intended to be a leader, but he saw a problem he desperately wanted to solve. "What we need more than anything else is positive stories to inspire people. Action inspires action, and we must each lead by example."
Leaders Must Embrace Vulnerability and Empathy
True leaders demonstrate their humanity by showcasing vulnerability and empathy, fostering collaboration among teams with diverse and complementary attributes. Shifting mindsets requires curiosity and conviction, integrating personal purpose with the organization's mission. Embarking on this journey entails self-reflection to uncover what truly motivates us and the principles we aspire to uphold.
We must be prepared for moments of discomfort and risk along the way, as the potential rewards are a better world for all. "I hope future students will open a geography book and learn about the environmental problem of the plastic garbage in the ocean as a case study since now the ocean is clean," Slat said. "I think it is about creating solutions and embracing how people are great in working together and solving issues."
Connecting personal values with impactful leadership can unlock courage and purpose to make a bigger difference. Every individual has the power to be a force for good, and by embracing resilience, creativity, and the willingness to collaborate with diverse partners, we can overcome challenges and create a better world. It's time to think big, bold, and brave for the benefit of all.