Jamie reflects on uncertain times, considers decision-making from the heart and examines why meaning has never been more essential for leading.

I’m a bit shocked when people a lot older than me tell me that times are bad!

If you follow the news, you know what I’m talking about. War, climate change, new technologies. Perhaps most striking is the fact that globalisation as we know it is being ripped up from the ground it was so comfortingly fixed to, and we’re still in that ripping up process.

A long time ago, things didn’t change this much. Hunter-gatherers roamed the same lands for millennia. Peasants kept the same routines for centuries. A revolution was something that happened once every few generations. But now, in one generation we’ve gone from not having the internet to having the internet, smartphones and social media. And in just 3 years we’ve lived through a pandemic, the worst geopolitical tensions in decades, and are currently experiencing a massive cultural shift as people around the world refuse to return to the office whilst businesses are still paying rent.

All these changes make leading today feel a lot like captaining a ship amid a storm with a crew on the verge of mutiny. The waters that ground you are rolling in anger, the stars that guide you are blacked out by clouds, and the team that supports you are gossiping and plotting behind your back.

This is why meaning has never been more essential for leading.

Because in times of great uncertainty, you need a reason to come together, to hold out through the tough times and to keep driving forward.

So, during uncertain times, how do you lead with meaning?

You find your North Star.

Imagine this scenario:

You’re a European company, and the Ukraine war has just broken out. You have employees in the Ukraine, but also employees in Russia. You naturally want to do everything you can to look after the Ukrainian employees and their families so you find ways of providing shelter for them.

But what about your people in Russia? You’re facing a lot of pressure from your government and also the press and public to cease operations in Russia. Do you abandon ship and pull out of the country altogether? What do you do?

It’s at times like these, where there is no clear answer, that the only place to find your answer is in what you care about.

This is what one pharmaceutical company did when facing such a situation. “The company’s leaders decided to keep operating so as to continue producing essential medicines for the people in Russia and to ensure that employees there could provide for their families”.

That is a decision from the heart, from a place of true awareness as to what those leaders truly care about and therefore what the business should care about, as opposed to simply following what other people expected of them.

What we care about can easily be drowned out by what others expect of us.

Existing with meaning: to “do good “?

For example, when studying for my Masters degree, I remember very clearly learning why corporations exist:

“To maximise shareholder value.”

“How depressing” I and my classmates thought. “But that’s just the way things are”, we also thought.

But over the last decade, that definition has been challenged, and somewhat replaced by 3 letters: ESG (Environment, Social, Governance).

I find it quite reassuring that in almost every single workshop I run with leaders, ESG related topics come up. I now frequently hear leaders talking about not taking on customers who pollute, or trying to learn more about neurodiversity to be more inclusive, or having meetings with their ethics committee.

It seems that now, corporations don’t just exist to maximise shareholder value. They are instead trying to do “Good”.

Now governments, investors and employees expect businesses to do good, and will actively punish those who are not committed to doing good.

It’s now cool to do good.

But this is not a good reason to do good.

Being greener, more inclusive and more ethical is all very well and good, but not sustainable if it means businesses lose out on the profits that drive their growth.

Furthermore, some businesses masquerade as doing good, whilst actually continuing the same old practices. For example, Greenwashing is where businesses give the impression their products and services are more environmentally friendly than they actually are. Governments are taking greenwashing increasingly seriously. The Financial Times even has a whole news section dedicated to reports about Greenwashing.

Pursuing “good” for the sake of following trends and keeping up with the Joneses is not “Good”. “Good” will not be good if it’s shaped from the outside in. It must be the way other way round, from the inside out.

Lighthouse on an island with its light shining at night time to represent your North Star when leading with meaning

This begs the question: What do you really care about?

Businesses, and leaders, who are clear about what they genuinely care about can demonstrate authenticity. Authenticity is measured in alignment; where what the company says is aligned to what it does, and what the company does is aligned to who it is.

When coaching leaders on their purpose, I dig deep into the stories that shaped them. Every story is about change, so asking what changes have happened in their life is a good place to start. But the changes that have a particularly strong influence on their sense of purpose tend to be changes of high emotion.

Finding meaning

Pause and reflect for a moment; what are some high emotion changes that you’ve experienced in your life? Moments where you were so emotionally charged you remember every detail. Maybe the loss of a loved one? The moment your child was born? When you lost your job? When your life fell apart and you had to rebuild it? When someone mistreated you badly? When something amazing happened to you?

For example, one founder of a branding company told me the story of how he lost his father at a young age, which sent him on a destructive path of turning away from everything that had defined him before his loss. Eventually this became unsustainable, and he had to rediscover his original identity. This led to him having a deep understanding of what identity is, which naturally led to an interest in brand identity which is what he helps businesses define now.

Another example is a business owner who had it all, but lived recklessly. He’d waste his money away, have affairs and generally live without conscience. Eventually it all caught up with him and he lost everything. In his darkest moment, he had to confront what really mattered to him, and he realised that he just wanted to do good, and he’d always wanted to do good, and the destructive life he was living was a consequence of not listening to what his heart really wanted him to know and just doing what society told him to. Now, doing good is at the centre of everything he does and he lives a much more meaningful life whilst running a meaningful business.

And one final example is myself.

After living in China for 16 years, I relocated to the UK, disillusioned with what China had become and somewhat traumatised from my experiences of zero COVID and the Shanghai Lockdown.

I spent months searching inside myself to understand the cause of my anger. I came to realise that I cared a great deal about meaning and finding the good stories we should live our lives by, and the times in my life when I had been triggered came from instances of people and myself living by destructive stories.

Before discovering this purpose, I felt like I was in a bubble thinking only of what I wanted and hoping people would need me. But since discovering this purpose, my bubble has evaporated into a stream of collective consciousness, and I find myself meeting more people I instantly connect with, people who just so happen to be floating in the same stream of collective consciousness as me.

From the heart: The Language of Meaning

A silhouette of a person with hair that resembles different colours and strands against a multi-coloured backdrop

All of these examples are high emotion moments of change. Within those high emotion moments of change are messages from your heart, telling you what you really care about. Emotions are the language of meaning. They are your heart’s way of telling you what really matters to you, what you value. And your values are worth listening to because a values mismatch is one of the causes of burnout.

To some degree, you’ve felt this before; when you “have to” do something, but you feel that it’s not right, or when something looks good on paper, but just doesn’t feel right, or when you’ve got something that looks and sounds great, but doesn’t feel great.

The pressure to meet expectations can drown out the messages from our hearts. So it’s important to reflect on those high emotion moments of change in your life, and ask what meaning your emotions were conveying to you in those moments? This is how you discover your authentic purpose. And your authentic purpose becomes your North Star in moments of great uncertainty.

Your North Star then becomes the seed from which an entire culture can grow, which is what I explore in Part 2 of this article.