“So, a duck walks into a bar….” (New Approaches to Corporate Sustainability)

Dave Smith Change, CSR, Leadership, Sustainability

Dave Smith is an associate with Booz Allen Hamilton and a student in the Ph.D./D.B.A. program in Values-Driven Leadership at Benedictine University. He is a retired U.S. Air Force officer. 
One of my favorite bosses became locally famous for one “duck walks into a bar” joke. During a serious crisis, when lives were at risk (literally), he walked into the operations team crisis room – looked around at the frantic group– and without any preamble began telling the joke. I don’t remember the punch line, but everyone remembers the way the joke cut through the tension and energized the team. It was an unusual but brilliant stroke of leadership.  The team rallied, chose a course of action, and was successful in mitigating the immediate crisis.

Today, as we face daunting challenges presented by limited resources, environmental impacts, and stakeholders’ demanding complete transparency – we need creative and brilliant leadership. But what does that mean? Does it mean well timed interventions? Or, do we need quick, incremental solutions that can be added to our existing processes?
In their book Embedded Sustainability, authors Chris Laslzo and Nadya Zhexembayeva explain that our normal mental models of leadership (well-timed interventions and emphasis on choosing the correct course of action from possible alternatives) won’t solve today’s multifaceted and interrelated environmental, resource-based, and transparency issues. Leaders need additional skills to meet the challenges. Just as the challenges have become more complex, so must our leadership skills. Four key skills are identified by the authors: design, inquiry, appreciation, and wholeness.
Design: Leaders worldwide normally think of leadership and management as decision-based. The leader’s job usually boils down to choosing the best course of action from several well-crafted alternatives. Design thinking turns that paradigm around.  Instead of making hard choices between defined alternatives, design thinking seeks easy choices among difficult to create new solutions. Naturally, to develop those new solutions we need to find the root issues through inquiry.
Inquiry:  Asking questions – especially the right questions – is very important in our complex business environment.  One example is the large firm which initially asked, “What does it mean to be the best in the world?”  After struggling with that question, they were energized by changing the question: “What does it mean to be the best for the world?”
Appreciation: Instead of identifying gaps and failures, appreciation leads us to analyze success and duplicate it. This type of appreciative inquiry is being used by industry leaders like Walmart and Green Mountain Coffee to make both large and small changes that lead to increased profits, reduced costs, and more sustainable business.
Wholeness: Design thinking, inquiry and appreciation lead naturally to more holistic solutions for both product and people issues. Wholeness means seeing the who, what, how, and why as interrelated.  In practical terms, that may mean more life-cycle thinking about products, or more stakeholder involvement (both internal and external).
So, back to my boss and his duck in the bar…. His somewhat unconventional leadership solved the immediate issue and was successful in the short term. However, the root issues in the organization required new and different leadership thinking. What about your organization? How is a course-of-action-based decision model working for you in the current complex environment? Are you stuck in a loop of well-timed interventions solving short term problems? Are you “bolting on” solutions in an attempt to solve business problems rooted in deeper environmental, resource, and transparency issues?  Or – are you thinking new thoughts?
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