"Where do you want to go, where the others are willing to follow?" Interview with Arjan Overwater

Updated: May 31, 2021

Picture taken at Museum of Humanity, Zaandam

Arjan’s background is in entrepreneurship and leadership development. He developed his leadership acumen through years of experience. First at Shell, where he developed programs for young graduates focused on self-managed learning. Then later, he worked for Coca Cola as well as Unilever, where he introduced similar methods. In groups, they would venture nature, discuss important questions about their own motivation, and what direction the business needed to take.

Arjan also worked as a consultant for companies like HSBC, in large programs. His focus was on the environment and sustainability and was working with teams of young leaders.

Arjan’s entrepreneurship lies between being CEO of a large part of Unilever’s business as well as in start-ups enterprises.

Nowadays, he uses his background and experience to apply it with Bressummer where teams of leaders work on projects having a sustainability focus and impact.

What is critical in your view to build leadership?

I think, a first critical point is trust. If you want to build that in people around you, they need to feel protection, they need to feel appreciation, they need to feel that you trust them. In every organization, or situation, or even in the family. Let us have a look at that system: if you want your children to thrive, at some point, they need to feel that they are trusted. That can bring the goods in them, and similarly, in other systems.

People will make mistakes. That is OK. The question then is, how do you evaluate together, without people clamming up and feeling that the system punishes them or the boss is negative, etc. The hierarchy thing needs to be geared to a positive approach where trust is flooding at all the levels.

Self-awareness is the other big factor. It will be much harder for a person to develop some sort of leadership if she/he is not able to stand back, to hear feed-back and criticism.

Leadership at the end is: where do you want to go, where the others are willing to follow. If where you want to go is ego-driven and dependent on making you to be revered, certainly in today’s world that is not a very motivational thing in terms of followership. We are after leadership that creates inspiration among followers, to make them become leaders in their own domains and do what they believe is right.

And I would also like to mention discipline. When you develop discipline in a sport, you have to do it regularly. It is the same with learning a language. Leadership is a verb in that sense where you need to apply it, you need to work at it very consciously.

What is the place of leaders in the current climate context?

Here in the West, the consequences of climate change are not always perceivable. We cannot see the CO2, we need to understand the effects first. It is a cognitive ability of people to realize what the effects are. It is also critical to understand how we do agriculture, create building materials in a sustainable way. The loss of forest, the land where species can thrive, the way we are fishing, all of these things are interconnected. When leaders are willing to open their mind to the world around us, heighten their awareness of larger issues, they can shape their leadership for a greater good.

Right now, what is requested of leaders is to make people aware that they can take action and that this can have a positive impact. Our job is to clarify the road that we can all travel to develop a more sustainable way of living together.

This is ultimately a more loving approach for the earth and for the generations that come after us. So the question becomes: “will we live a relatively selfish, an all-consuming life now at the expense of what comes after us?” This is a question of legacy, development for the next generations.

What message would you like to send to the leaders of the 21st century?

We need speed. Al Gore came out 15 years ago with his presentations. We do not have time. That is the issue now. Unless we radically develop supply chains that are sustainable, that don’t create more harm than good, we are running against huge issues.

In the Netherlands, people have come together with some speed. After the flood of 53, huge barriers were created against potential future floods, billions were invested, and these are still things that are working.

Now we need speed and we need to come together again. A systemic change can only happen if the big players come together and start to work on these issues collaboratively. Our competitive models, in term of winning and losing, are often restricted to what is good for me. The issue here is, if we want to advance, we need to look at what is good for my sector, for my country, for the world.

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