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Nurturing your creativity, courage and collaboration to fully express the unique talent you were born with may be the greatest contribution you can make to tackling the world’s biggest challenges.

In September, world leaders signed the 17 UN Global Goals, making a commitment to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and combat climate change. And tomorrow it looks like Ministers will sign COP21 to limit the increase in global temperatures to less than 2°C. However, watching the process over the last few days, and knowing how UN agencies operate, it’s clear we will need different skills and a different mindset to implement what is required.

From a cultural perspective, Frédéric Laloux’s ground-breaking thesis, Reinventing Organizations, outlines a vision. He describes how organisations of the future, with what he calls ‘Teal’ levels of consciousness, respond organically to big challenges.

Some organisations such as Patagonia and AES are already doing this, but multinational companies and UN Agencies are three evolutionary steps behind this vision, in what Laloux refers to as the ‘Amber’ stage of organisational development. And yet, we need them to be at their best to tackle the Global Goals and implement COP21. Big problems need big, brilliant organisations. 

In the 15 years in which we have to achieve the Global Goals, there may not be enough time for the UN or multinationals to make the leaps in consciousness required. As Laloux points out ‘an organization cannot evolve beyond its leadership’s stage of development’, and in my experience, a leader only chooses to raise their consciousness when they are ready.

What if your leadership isn’t ready?

Laloux isn’t particularly encouraging: ‘I tell people not to waste their energy trying.’

Changing the culture and operating model is only part of the answer though. Let’s consider some of the biggest breakthroughs in science, art and business in the last 150 years: Albert Einstein developed the Special Theory of Relativity while working as a technical expert 3rd class at the Patent Office in Berne; Vincent Van Gogh painted the Sunflowers in the Blue House, just next to a smoky railway station and in front of a busy square; while Steve Jobs founded Apple in a garage. 

None of these places was exactly the perfect enabling environment. And that’s because, the highest performers focus on skills such as creativity, courage and collaboration irrespective of culture.

1. Creativity

Tackling the world’s biggest challenges requires breakthrough creativity. Fortunately, everyone is born with unlimited creativity and a unique talent – what Sir Ken Robinson calls ‘being in your element’ – and I call your 'life purpose'. Creativity is how you express your life purpose.

Having the courage to do this – to live in your element – is the greatest contribution you can make to the world around you. Andy Warhol got a D in his trigonometry and an AAAA in his art at school. Imagine if he had chosen to improve his trigonometry rather than share his talent with the world?

The problem, as Robinson has outlined in the world’s most watched TED Talk and one of the first RSA Animate films, is Schools Kill Creativity. And it’s not just schools: businesses and society limit our creativity too.

In addition, most of us have forgotten our life purpose.

As William Wordsworth said: ‘Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.’

Somewhere along our life journey, at school or in business, we learnt to suppress our talent, to focus on developing our weaknesses.

Great leaders do the opposite. You can too. Have you ever tried to create something extraordinary in a challenging environment? If so, you may have noticed the more challenging it is, the more creative you are. And it’s why I now paint in extreme locations all over the world. Painting in extreme locations is my experiment to see what is required to be creative everywhere. 

I now realise that expressing our life purpose is where we start solving the world’s challenges. Our journey to overcome adversity is a fractal of humanity’s journey to overcome adversity. We may not be able to change the world. But we can change our world. And if we all did that, the world would change.

If you don’t know your life purpose, I encourage you to find out. And if you know your life purpose, but not how to express it, start doing something creative every week. I offer courses to help people do both.

2. Courage

'Creativity takes courage.'  - Henri Matisse

Expressing our life purpose takes enormous courage. How often do you know exactly what you ought to do, but rather than expose your true beliefs, you stay within your comfort zone? Unfortunately, staying in our comfort zone means staying in a world of poverty, of war, of child illnesses and of global warming.

To realise breakthroughs, we need to have the courage to express them, then lead them. Living at this level of creativity requires us to live outside of our comfort zone every day. Do you have the courage to do that?

'We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.' - Jean-Claude Juncker, Former EU President

If not, consider Brené Brown’s insight that what feels like vulnerability to you, looks like courage to others. And remember, the verge of a breakdown is the springboard to a breakthrough.

3. Collaboration

Trying to make it alone simply isn’t an option anymore.

To create a breakthrough in physics similar in size to the one Einstein had 90 years ago requires over 3,000 people to work together at the LHC at CERN. The problem is that collaboration isn’t something we learnt at school, we were assessed as individuals.

Organisations do the same. Rather than measure the output of cross-functional teams, they measure the productivity of a silo: how is HR engaging employees? How is sales selling? How is marketing engaging customers? Changing the metrics helps. But just measuring a cross-functional team’s output is insufficient if individuals don’t know how to collaborate.

Unfortunately, when something goes wrong, we point our finger of blame at the ‘other’, forgetting that when we do so, three fingers are pointing back at us. 

Look at a baby. When a baby smiles, the world smiles back. The baby creates its world. If a baby can do this so can we. Enlightened parents know you you can’t calm a baby down. You can only calm yourself down and the baby’s mood will follow

Gandhi didn’t say talk about the change, or think about it. He said be the change. So, rather than seeing another person or another department as the problem, consider what you can learn from them. How can both of you grow?

Take a leaf out of Richard Branson’s text and ask insightful questions, rather than trying to provide all the answers. Explore how others can contribute and express their life purpose.

Getting to the Global Goals

You see the answer to our problems isn’t out there. It doesn’t depend on the culture, the operating model or someone else. It starts inside us.

Take Nelson Mandela. He was imprisoned for 27 years, much of it spent in solitary confinement. Yet, when he came out, he didn’t blame those who put him inside. And he didn’t try to change the people outside. He just shared his love for all people, no matter their race, colour or creed. And he learnt every skill he needed through facing adversity within himself. Isn’t it funny how many of us love to quote him, Steve Jobs and Gandhi, while forgetting to go on our own internal journey?

So, I invite you, if you are serious about achieving the Global Goals and COP21, to have the courage to face that adversity and nurture the skills to fully express our life purpose. 

Alex Inchbald FRSA is an extreme artist and co-founder of Creative Leadership Partners His Life Purpose is to Unleash the World’s Creativity for Good. Alex paints in extreme locations all over the world to explore what it takes to be creative everywhere. And he has worked on every single one of the 17 Global Goals with organisations such as The Red Cross, The World Health Organization and Unilever.

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