Episode 65

Published on:

12th Mar 2024

Embracing Modern Leadership with Ashish Kothari and Andrew White

In today's fast-moving world, leaders can't afford to stick to the old ways. Ignoring the ever-changing landscape around us means missing out on new opportunities and risking stagnation. It's essential for any leader to stay agile and resilient – that's what modern leadership is all about in these challenging times.

In this episode of the HAPPINESS SQUAD Podcast, Ashish Kothari and Andrew White, CEO of Transcend.Space, dive deep into the concept of modern leadership.

Andrew White is a visionary in modern leadership, dedicated to understanding and shaping the role of business leaders in addressing global challenges. At Said Business School, he directs the Oxford Advanced Management and Leadership Programme, annually guiding 80 global leaders towards new strategic directions. 

As the founder of Transcend.Space, Andrew works with purpose-driven leaders to foster positive change beyond profit. His insights extend to global leadership retreats, contributions to Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, a TEDx talk, a podcast, and his popular LinkedIn newsletter 'Leadership 2050' with over 5,000 subscribers.

In the conversation, Ashish and Andrew address how leadership is transforming in response to the unique challenges and rapid changes of the modern world.

Things you will learn from this episode:

  • The Challenges of 21st Century Leadership
  • Human-Centric Approach to Leadership
  • The Importance of Active Listening Skills
  • Integrating Technology in Leadership
  • The role of Personal Development and Mindfulness in Leadership

Tune in now to gain invaluable insights and tools to transform your leadership style and make a positive impact in today's dynamic world.




Ashish Kothari: It's lovely to see you, Andrew. I'm really looking forward to this conversation. It's almost been a year and three months since we last saw each other at Next Practice Institute.

Andrew White: That's right. It was a wonderful time we had in Boston.

Ashish Kothari: Friends, for those who are tuning in, Andrew and Sophie were leading a one-week mindfulness at work effort, which was absolutely amazing. I'm really excited that Andrew is joining us.

Andrew, you have been researching extensively on the unique challenges that leading in the 21st century poses for leaders. It's not like any other time. I would love to have you share a little bit about what's unique about some of these challenges that you're seeing leaders experience.

Andrew White: Thank you, Ashish, for having me on the podcast. It's wonderful to reconnect and to have this conversation.

As you said, I focus on two big topics in my research: how leadership is changing today and how transformation happens. Since the financial crisis, we've seen wave after wave of changes, including climate change, digitization, issues around people at work and flourishing, diversity, and inclusion. This is challenging the way people lead, and I believe a new archetype of leadership is emerging.

his in my podcast, Leadership:

If you look at our own bodies, if you look at the nature that we're part of: trees, seasons, oceans, they don't talk about transformation, they just evolve and they go through these patterns of life and death, and growing and declining, with a level of ease about that. There’s something about disruption and change, and how it’s changing the way we have to lead.

Another point is that leaders are being asked to do more than before. Think about yourself if you’re a leader in an organization; the outside world will be asking for more of you. So you have to think about:

What is our role in society?

What and who are we serving?

What do we contribute?

What are we improving?

Profits are important, but there's much more to it. We've seen companies focused solely on profit undermine their growth.

Looking inwards, my research on transformation shows that putting people at the heart of any transformation effort significantly increases the likelihood of success. This isn't just soft stuff. A human-centric approach builds something better for people, the planet, and the world.

Leaders today need different skills. Most leaders who've reached the top are good at maintaining the status quo, but now they're being asked to develop a different set of skills. Some are naturally good at this, but many need training and development. This is where the world of leadership development is shifting, and it's what we're seeing change in our world in Oxford and in the world of Mobius, where you and I both work.

So, that's a summary to hopefully kick us off.

Ashish Kothari: I love that. It's so in sync with my work at McKinsey, where I was leading as part of our leadership service line and our adaptability work, which has really come to fruition in the last year and a half as we've launched into the space of Flourishing.

Several of these points are worth echoing. One is about both the speed of change and how many factors are changing at the same time.

If you think about the industrial revolution, improvements happened over decades. Then came the internet age. In 20 years, the world looks so different than it did 20 years ago.

I remember discovering the internet at IBM in '97 with Netscape. The world today is completely different in terms of processing speed and so on. But that was about 10 to 20 years of diffusion of that innovation. Look at AI in the last year – there's been a 98-99% improvement in efficiency in the work that marketers and others are doing.

Navigating such rapid change versus the slow, gradual change we're used to is a very unique challenge. Control doesn't work in this environment; there's so much changing, you can't mobilize an organization at that level.

The second point, which you also highlighted, is about… there is no board, leadership team, and leader I've engaged with, who has not said that people are at the heart of our transformation. It’s always “People are our competitive strategy, our competitive edge.” And that’s the big challenge I’m posing back to them.

Those are great words, but if you truly believed it, you would measure the state of your people the same way you manage your physical assets. You'd continuously assess how they are performing. Are they stressed out? Burnt out? Operating optimally? And you would make continuous changes.

If you're not measuring performance and health in every team at the same frequency, I don't believe people are at the heart of your strategy.

Andrew White: It requires a shift in perspective. I often describe it as learning to use your left hand and now being asked to use your right hand. Similarly, you've been looking through your left eye, and now you're looking through your right eye. You see things differently.

More and more people are going to work not just for a paycheck, but they're looking for a place where they can develop, grow, and be part of something bigger than themselves. The challenge is, if you're running a company with 50,000 or 100,000 employees, how do you put in place a culture that can do that? How do you listen to them? This requires a deeply personal skill, but you can also use technology to aid in this process.

The act of listening is so powerful. We've asked hundreds of executives what the most important skill is when it comes to transformation, and they all come back to listening.

Someone once asked me, "Andrew, if it's as simple as listening, why do we find it so difficult?" The word 'listening' has almost been reduced in its meaning.

True listening involves hearing, giving feedback, and engaging in a dialogue. The question is, how do you do that at scale? But the concept of listening remains incredibly powerful.

Ashish Kothari: Andrew, I have a list of questions here that I put together for you that I want to delve into, but I'm with you on how important listening is. Let's stay with it for a minute.

I was having a conversation with the Dean at the university here, and they asked for our help. They want to listen to their stakeholders and understand the heart of the challenges before making changes.

I'm really curious, can we dig into why listening is difficult and what are some ways you advise leaders to listen well?

Andrew White: This is probably why listening is hard. Our minds have always been a challenge to us, going back thousands of years. Practices developed to quiet the mind, bringing it back to the breath, a candle, or a mantra. These things have been around for a long time, so we know it's a challenge we face. But then we plugged in electronic devices, and the drama that feeds my fear and what I'm attracted to has just become multiplied, probably by 10. It's no longer just in my home or village; I plug into parts of the entire world.

First, we've got that going on. There's also a sense in a leadership role that you're expected to have the answers. If you take both of those things, and maybe add in trauma, which could be the trauma of day-to-day stress, complex situations, and conflict in the organization, along with the busyness of my mind and the need to be right, it becomes difficult to listen. I'm so full of myself and the idea that I have to have the answer.

Practices that cultivate a sense of quietness and stillness, and being comfortable with not knowing, are important. Practices that bring in compassion help us to see other people. One of the most powerful phrases I've heard is that “I don't have to agree with you to respect you”.

This is particularly important in today's polarized world. We begin to understand why listening is so difficult. Primarily, it's an inner state that we have to cultivate within ourselves to really listen, and that leaders need to cultivate within themselves.

There is complexity around how you do this across large organizations. But unless that inner state is there, you can get all the data you want, but you won't hear it. When you walk the corridors, are in town hall meetings, fielding questions, or meeting people on Zoom or Teams, you're not going to listen. So, there's a deep inner state of presence or stillness that I think you need to find in order to truly listen.

Ashish Kothari: As I hear you, Andrew, I'm reminded of this beautiful Zen story about a learned teacher, well-known for wanting to find the answer to happiness. He had studied it but could never get there. He heard about this Zen teacher who emanated happiness and pure joy, so he went to him. The Zen teacher invited him to sit down and offered him a cup of tea.

As he poured the tea, the teacup filled and overflowed. The man asked, "Why are you still pouring? The tea is already full." The teacher replied, "Your cup is also full. Before you empty your cup, how can I fill it with anything?" This story illustrates what you're saying.

Because of all the stories and dramas in our heads, as well as traumas we might be carrying, even from childhood, we are so full that we're not listening. We have to empty our cup. The notion of presence, mindfulness, and really listening with curiosity is a powerful capacity to cultivate. Just listen, listen without being an expert, knowing the answers.

Andrew White: Exactly. Some practices I'm seeing leadership teams put in place include taking two or three minutes of silence when they meet. They recognize they've all come from busy agendas, carrying a lot of energy in their bodies, and their minds are busy. To jump straight into making a big decision about investing money without settling into a place of stillness isn't effective.

They need to gain some awareness of what's going on in their body. If I'm able to do that, then my mind becomes more like my servant or less dominant. I feel, but I also observe that I'm feeling. I have sensations, but I also observe the sensations. It creates some spaciousness in me and in us.

Ashish Kothari: So Andrew, that's wonderful for one-on-one listening or even in a small group, like a focus group, which can be very powerful.

But if you're a Fortune 500 CEO or a senior leader, how do you listen at scale to what's really going on in the organization? How do you listen at scale to your customers, suppliers, and the whole ecosystem? What tips do you have?

Andrew White: This is where we have to look to technology. I'm starting to see some really interesting tech around listening. This includes technology that identifies who the real change makers in an organization are, and it's not based on hierarchy. It captures data to see whether people are engaged.

For example, you could look at how many people have their cameras on in internal meetings. You wouldn't have to identify anyone, but you could look at patterns. If normally 70 percent of people have their cameras on, but now only 20 percent do, then something might be happening that indicates people don't want to engage or they're withdrawing.

There's other technology that, without identifying anybody, can look at who's speaking up in meetings. For instance, what percentage of time did each person speak? If you're the CEO in a team of 10 people and you're talking for 90 percent of the time, with only two other people speaking, you can start to see patterns.

Are people speaking up? Do they feel comfortable talking? You can also measure emotional energy in an organization. Do people feel up or down? How's that correlating to progress? If people feel down and projects are not moving forward, we know we have a problem.

We're starting to be able to use tech that can help with these things. AI can come in and look for pattern recognitions. We're at the beginning of creating what I think will be very interesting assistants, or co-pilots as Microsoft calls their technology, that work alongside leaders in listening and interpreting, which is super helpful.

Ashish Kothari: Andrew, if you have some suggestions for your top three technology tools that can help people listen, we could include them in the show notes for our listeners.

Let's come back to the notion of listening, which I believe is at the heart of change. If we can't listen to the signs, the world is moving too fast, and we'll be too slow to respond. We'll be responding to what's happening now, but by the time our change takes effect, the situation will have already evolved. We'll always be playing catch-up.

So, returning to the idea that the world is changing rapidly and transformation is key, leadership faces some very distinct challenges. At the heart of it is how to get the best out of your people and prepare and lead them effectively.

From all your research and practical work, including launching your own company, Transcend Space, where transformation is not just what you study but what you help leaders achieve, I have a question.

In the context of a transformation, how can leaders ensure that their people are performing at their best without burning out, but truly doing it in a way that allows them to flourish? We aim to elevate people, planet, and profits rather than sacrificing people for profits or the planet for profit.

Andrew White: I'm going to start by answering this question by looking outside the organization, as it creates context. I'll talk about three leaders I've interviewed who embody the archetype of this century.

The first is David Katz, who runs the Plastic Bank. Most of us see poverty and plastic in the oceans as a source of angst. David sees this as an opportunity. He takes money from consumer goods companies and pays people in low-income, coastal areas to collect plastic. This money goes back into their communities for healthcare and household incomes, and the plastic goes back into the supply chain as 'plastic for good.' There's something beautifully transcendent about that.

The second is Audette Exel of the Adara Group. This organization is an investment bank, but the second half of its operation is a development agency specializing in neonatal care in off-grid locations.

This isn't a separate foundation; it's an integral part. Audette doesn't see a difference between an investment banker and a nurse. The investment bankers she uses have already made a lot of money and don't get paid for their work. They help generate significant fee income, which goes into neonatal care. The bankers receive a payslip showing what they've helped fund. This is a total transformation, mixing what we might consider oil and water, transcending a paradox, similar to what David is doing.

The final one is Jack Sim of the World Toilet Organization in Singapore. Jack has been responsible for changing policies in India, China, and several other countries, leading to about 1 billion toilets being installed worldwide. Jack and his small team show that you don't need a large organization to have an impact.

These three individuals are creating worlds in which people can flourish. People are attracted to that; they want to be part of it. There's something incredibly beautiful about those worlds. Some people see a connection with their own purpose, which is very motivating.

Secondly, these leaders really know how to get the best out of people. They find their skills and put them to the best use in the organization. They also help people realize what they're good at and where they could develop and grow.

David talks about recruiting someone as if bringing them into a temple, treating each individual and their work as sacred. This approach recognizes that individuals have incredible skills, and many are in jobs where they contribute less than 50% of what they could due to hierarchical, pay, and job title structures.

By creating something transcendent, these leaders influence the culture of the organization, which has a powerful effect on the people working there.

Ashish Kothari: There is something indeed so powerful about having a bigger why beyond just making money for shareholders.

Earlier last year, I had a chance to work with a company that makes metal cans. We did a purpose journey for them and had their leaders engage all the way down through the organization with the simple question of what we should stand for beyond making money for shareholders. Truly listen, your job was to just listen. The second question was about what drives them. Defining a bigger, noble purpose for the company to exist can be such a powerful motivator.

Then, the second piece you're talking about is the focus on what people are good at versus what they are not, celebrating their strengths. You've given me a beautiful notion, thinking about what Adara is doing with investment bankers.

Friends, if you're listening, think about this: in most developed countries, more people are going to be 65 plus in the coming years than ever before. We are graying. Often with age, people think you've retired and hence you're irrelevant, when we know that meaning and connection are so much needed.

Many of these folks don't need to work. They have the money, but they have skills they can contribute. My invitation and call for action is to bring them back. Let's have folks donate their expertise and use it where we can to make a positive difference in the world and redirect the funds for a 2x impact.

The companies and people who benefit from their expertise also benefit from the redirected dollars towards other underprivileged issues or big issues that people care about. I've loved that, Andrew, and thank you for sharing. Beautiful provocation and ideas.

So, I want to go next to your origin story, Andrew. You've had a beautiful journey through your own life, and I want you to share this with the listeners. Share your journey of how mindfulness and transformational change really began, because that's not what you were in your twenties, right?

Andrew White: Well, the seeds were there.

Ashish Kothari: Yes, the seeds were there. How has it really influenced you? You bring these two things beautifully together, and I think those qualities are so needed today. What's been your origin story and journey that's gotten you to where you are now?

Andrew White: I'm going to weave two threads together that started at different points and were separate before they came together.

The first is my upbringing in the evangelical Christian world. I was a naughty boy up until about 16, had a conversion experience, and went headlong into it. I was going to become a priest, preaching and talking to large groups of people.

Then, at about 21, I had a crashing breakdown. I'm someone who's comfortable with questions, and in that world, I had to be comfortable with a very tightly defined set of answers. There was an inner thing in me that just couldn't fit, but I never lost the sense of something greater than ourselves, which I now define as mystery, wonder, and awe.

As a practice, I discovered meditation and the ability to recognize my wandering mind and bring it back to my breath.

The second thread was my interest in disruption and discontinuous change, which I started exploring at university.

Back when we started our careers, if you got involved in a disruption at work, you were unlucky. It was something that happened in certain businesses hit by new technology.

I was fascinated by this area of disruption and radical change, and that topic has become more and more prevalent. When you weave these two things together, going through a storm of disruption and transformation can be very disturbing to the psyche, disrupting our identity and ego.

I've noticed leaders in transforming worlds need to come back to a place of stillness, sometimes on a daily or hourly basis, through a practice. It's also about retreat, which is what my company offers – a space every six months or every year to spend four or five days in quietness, stillness, and reflection with others, with some gentle facilitation, to really understand where I am, where my organization is, and if we are focusing on the right things.

These practices are important for re-energizing oneself. In a sense, you've got stillness in the storm, and ultimately, I think what we're going towards is being able to ride the waves of this with greater ease, as I believe this is a more natural state to be in for the next few decades.

hare my three-word mantra for:

In 2023, I was in Jamaica towards the end of the year and participated in a psychedelic retreat, recognizing the effect of psychedelics on elevating consciousness and healing trauma. In that week, I walked away with these three words, seeking inspiration and insight for 2024.

. The three words that define:

This notion of being still while moving a lot, and finding your point in the midst of turbulent seas, is powerful. You don't always have the choice to take time off, but through regular practice, you can create the capacity to find that stillness and get out of the fight, flight, or freak mode, so we can be more choiceful in our actions.

Andrew White: I'm a sailor, and as a sailor, I know we try to avoid storms, but we may end up in one. You don't learn how to deal with a storm in the storm. It's too late then. You have to have done the training, been mentored by someone experienced. Yes, you learn things by going through a storm for the first time, but that's not the time to suddenly realize you have to deal with things, like adjusting the boat and looking after people.

Ashish Kothari: So Andrew, when you're taking folks on retreat as part of Transcend, are you doing it with whole leadership teams, or are they individual leaders going through it?

Andrew White: We're doing it through both. We have a corporate offering for whole leadership teams, and another for people from multiple leadership teams. There's something different about each. Some people prefer to be with others from various organizations, while some prefer to be in an intact team. It's easier to get psychological safety in a team with multiple people, but if you get an intact team really motoring, you're going to get more impact. So, we offer both.

Ashish Kothari: I want to switch gears for a bit and talk about a topic you recently published in the Harvard Business Review. It's about the importance for leaders to cultivate humility.

Can you talk a bit about why it's so important and how leaders can do that, especially in environments that traditionally reward the opposite?

Andrew White: Humility is an inner state of consciousness where I'm aware that I don't have all the answers and recognize that any status or power I have is not for me, but in service of something greater.

If we take these two concepts – that I don't know everything and that my power is in service of something greater – it becomes practical. When a leader walks into a room, if they're not aware of the shadow they cast or the power they have, people are unlikely to speak up due to fear. If they project that they have all the answers, people are also unlikely to speak up.

A previous dean I worked with understood this. When he had a complex decision, he made sure he never declared his opinion until everyone had spoken, knowing that once he shared his view, the conversation would not be as open.

It's also about recognizing why you've been put in the position you're in. We can tell the difference between being led by people who are in service of something and those who demand our loyalty and resources. These are key ingredients to whether I can bring more of myself, feel energized, and get guidance.

Another aspect is knowing when as a senior leader to say, "I don't know." This requires wisdom because you might not do that in a shareholder meeting or a town hall to all employees. There needs to be people around you where you can express doubts.

Saying "I don't know" to a large group implementing a project could create dysfunctional uncertainty. Having people you can talk to, like a coach or mentor, is important. CEOs I coach often need space for this. Executive teams also need this, but it requires trust and a culture where the uncertainty of the outside world can be brought into the organization.

We've seen what happens when organizations get stuck in a version of the truth that's dysfunctional. A public example is the UK's post office scandal, where postmasters were prosecuted based on incorrect IT system data. The organization got stuck behind lawyers and worries about liability, showing a form of arrogance.

Ashish Kothari: I love that. The two polarities are interesting. One, having all the power and showing up with a perspective, knowing that stating it can sway the room. We often see the classic 'follow the sun' effect, where everyone moves towards what the leader says.

Yet, in the right context and with the right group, being able to say "I don't know" and really listening to all opinions before showing your hand is crucial. I can imagine how hard it is and what a skill it is to develop.

You also have to consider the multitude of tasks you have. If I only had one thing to do in a day, I could listen all the time. But with 25-30 things to do and only time for 12, it's challenging. In complex issues, like the post office story, you realize the damage that can be done. What you thought might save 10 or 40 minutes could lead to months of damage in the system.

As we come towards a close, I have two questions for you. One is about the importance of flourishing and happiness in a leader. We talk about flourishing as an organization, but how important do you think it is for the actual leaders who are leading these organizations? Can you create a flourishing organization if you're not flourishing?

Andrew White: I don't think so. Let's go back to some of the things we've already spoken about. Having power but not being power, having thoughts but not being thoughts, having feelings but not being feelings. Stepping into a place of awareness, finding stillness, compassion for others, and not being driven by attraction or fear. We cultivate happiness, and the things around us matter less. The power structures in big organizations are addictive and all-consuming energetically. However, in the grand scheme, organizations and job roles don't matter that much. Gaining spaciousness from this is important because it's a vehicle for service, but it doesn't overwhelm in importance or become the focus of your ego energy. Leaders need practices and activities outside of work that enable this separation. This is the space where happiness is cultivated, especially in nature, which is full of happiness and joy, particularly as we approach spring in the Northern Hemisphere and see all that life coming forth.

Ashish Kothari: Come to fruition, beautiful practices for cultivating your own flourishing. Fill your cup before you create a flourishing organization out there. The nature aspect ties in beautifully with what we started with. Recognizing that every human being right now is in a highly activated fight, flight, freeze nervous system due to the level of disruption, changes, and things coming at us.

Andrew White: And what we've plugged into ourselves.

Ashish Kothari: Yes, what we've plugged into ourselves with our phones and what we put into our bodies. Friends, if there's nothing else you take away, try the last suggestion Andrew made. This weekend, go out in nature. Forest bathing is one of the most powerful ways. Leave your phone and devices behind, spend two hours, and come back to notice the effect of nature on your parasympathetic system, bringing back calmness. It's really powerful.

Andrew, this has been amazing. Thank you for taking the time and sharing your insights. We'll share links to all of your articles, and a bit about your new company and the retreats you are creating for leaders to cultivate the capacity for stillness, so they can navigate the storms they will inevitably face with more grace, cognitive capacity, an open heart, and humility to motivate and engage an organization to create solutions together. Thank you.

Andrew White: Thank you, Ashish. It's been a real pleasure talking with you today. I wish you all the very best for everything you're trying to do with your organization too.

Ashish Kothari: Thank you. Thank you.

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About the Podcast

The Happiness Squad
Welcome to Happiness Squad.

This is the podcast dedicated to helping you unlock your full potential by mastering the art and science of happiness.

We bring on the best leading experts on these topics to help you unlock your true potential and live with more joy, health, love, and meaning in your life.

Your host is no other than Ashish Kothari who is on a mission to provide you with an unfair advantage to be the masters of your experience and leaders in your industry.

Get ready to be moved, challenged, and enlightened on this podcast. It may change your life.

Thanks for being here and joining the squad!
Learn more: https://happinesssquad.com/

About your hosts

Ashish Kothari

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Ashish Kothari is the founder and CEO of Happiness Squad, a company focused on democratizing happiness and touching a billion+ lives over the next 20 years and helping them live with more joy, health, love, and meaning.

Prior to founding Happiness Squad and writing his best-selling book “Hardwired for happiness”, Ashish spent 25 years in consulting, including the last 17 at McKinsey and Co, a premier management consulting firm, helping thousands of clients and their organizations achieve breakthrough performance by building new mindsets and capabilities.

Ashish is a trained ontological coach and a lifelong student of human thriving.

Anil Ramjiani

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Anil Ramjiani is an experienced senior leader at Nike, Inc., most recently as the Commercial Director managing key athlete partnerships and business with Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe, and Marcus Rashford.

Anil's passion is grounded in empowering people, unlocking potential, and driving performance. He has worked in consulting and corporate across the US, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia acquiring over 20 years of experience in strategy, brand, and general management at IBM, Adidas, and Nike.

He created the podcast and platform Live. Breathe. Believe., to enable reflection, motivation, and inspiration for his peers. #Knowyoutobeyou!