Meet Christo Nel, leadership development and change expert. I met him in 2014, when he was one of the international speakers on a panel on sustainability and governance. When I found out that Christo was stepping down as the MBA Program Director at Nyenrode Business University, I immediately reached out to interview him. Here’s what he shared about possibility, balance and courage.
Possibility of balance
Christo’s vision of a sustainable future is an integrated one where profit and purpose are side by side, rather than at odds with each other. Sustainability is all about finding possibilities to balance our own interests with the interests around us, such as natural resources in the value chain and people in local communities. He was inspired by the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, which seemed more focused on diversity, climate, and purpose than ever before.
The edges of change
We need to demystify the idea of sustainability. We need to strip it from idealism, which is too distant from the prevailing reality. And denial of where we’re at, makes change impossible. He draws a very visual parallel to Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Change happens at the edges; at the banks of the rivers teeming with flowing grasses, dispersed seeds and crawly creatures. Only by considering the full richness of diversity and going beyond preconceived ideas, can we grow and develop as humankind.
Purpose with consequences
To introduce positive change, leaders need to define a core purpose for the organization and think through the consequences of that purpose. To do this, they must seek out the wisdom of teams. In addition, they must make an effort to connect to people outside of their own comfort zone. To avoid confirmation bias, leaders must open their hearts and ears to voices of dissent. This requires hard work, building up transparency, trust and collaboration while bringing down boundaries within and between organizations.
Resilient yet vulnerable
Business schools are well-placed to cultivate softer elements of leadership. By adding values to business disciplines, schools like Nyenrode can enable leaders to define real purpose and values, that can truly permeate the organization. Leaders also need to be resilient; to not let small mishaps get in the way of big changes needed. And we all need to see vulnerability as a signal of strength, rather than weakness.
Spider webs and apartheid
Christo’s passion for environmental and social justice stem from his youth in South Africa. His father brought his eyes to the smallest things in nature, such as spider webs. His fair, non-judging parents taught him all about the importance of human relationships, meditation and integration, but they could not shield him from the harsh reality of apartheid in South African society. Seeing what prejudice, isolation and fragmentation does to people, made him a pro-democracy activist.
Courage in the face of uncertainty
Christo will be returning to South Africa soon, to – in his own words – think, fast, exercise and do nothing, preferably on the beach. He’s convinced that facing emptiness opens up new possibilities. He will continue to teach leadership courses at Nyenrode and other business schools. In such courses, he assists people to have courage in the face of uncertainty. He supports people to unleash their potential and to be larger than themselves. He’d very much like to see Nyenrode embrace change as well. With the likes of Harvard professor Michael Porter taking shared value mainstream, Nyenrode should be bolder in the integration of sustainability into its mantra of Leadership – Entrepreneurship – Stewardship.
Written by Marjolein Baghuis (@mbaghuis) for Change in Context. To meet other interesting people driving positive change or read more about sustainability, leadership and change, please subscribe.