Leading the Sustainability Driven Company – Part 2

Keith Cox Sustainability

Keith Cox, Ph.D., is the Systemic Sustainability Lead for idGroup Consulting & Creative, where he focuses on positive business and social change. He is also an advisor to the Center for Values-Driven Leadership. For the first entry in this series, click here
This time we look at what makes a sustainability-driven leader tick. While there is no one ideal leadership profile that guarantees success in driving a strategic sustainability agenda, research has discovered some core characteristics that seem to enable individuals to embrace sustainability principles and drive them through the organizational culture.

Perhaps the most significant characteristic of these sustainability-driven leaders is that they are “called” to lead social change. In responding to the call, they express a desire to help others to promote humanity, to protect the planet, and they continually “live into” their highest vision of themselves. These desires influence the intentions, choices, conversations, and interactions of these leaders on a daily basis and are ultimately transformed into organizational priorities. Almost everyone I interviewed had a life story where some combination of the influence of parents, schooling, peers, the zeitgeist of the times, or a specific life experience informed a personal sense of purpose that connected them to principles of social/economic justice, environmental stewardship, and/or corporate responsibility.

My research also shows that these leaders consistently leverage formative experiences. As Jeffrey Hollender, cofounder of Seventh Generation, observed, “All my experiences funnel back and impact what I do here [as a leader].” Like most of us, most every leader interviewed makes a conscious effort to reflect on and learn from significant, past experiences. However, what seems to be unique to these leaders is how they accentuate the importance of seizing the opportunities in the “here and now” to accelerate their growth and development while thinking about and orchestrating future events where individual and collective learning can occur.

Another key characteristic of sustainability-driven leaders is that they commit to developing an “expanded worldview.” By expanded worldview I mean a heightened sensitivity to and understanding of the complexity of the external environment (e.g., the contentious business climate, global social and environmental issues, etc.). They then incorporate this worldview into their deliberations on business and value creation. For example, Ray Anderson of Interface talked about how reading Paul Hawken’s book “The Ecology of Commerce,” expanded his worldview and consequently influenced his decision making. Before reading the book he said, “I was totally oblivious to the natural world and how dependent we were [on it]… I would have said that the purpose of business was to make a profit.” Anderson went on to describe how Hawken’s words were eye opening, “I came to…this rather sterile idea of species extinction and it was the point of the spear in the chest. I read on and the spear went deeper and I was convicted right there as a plunderer of the earth.”

Finally, many of the leaders participating in this research talked about embracing a spiritual calling. As Godric Bader of Scott Bader stated, “there is something in all of us; we call it spirit, the force, even God or whatever that is trying to evolve us. Tuning into that desire to evolve is absolutely fundamental.” These “green” leaders approach the world with a service mentality grounded in strong moral beliefs about their obligation to act as agents of world benefit – a covenant or commitment that binds them to a cause beyond themselves.

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