New breed of leaders go far, fast
Presidio’s Nicola Acutt says sustainable leaders have competence, capacity and courage.
Nicola AcuttWarren Bennis, a pioneer of the field of leadership studies, said, “Leaders are people who are able to express themselves fully.”
Fully expressing oneself requires having something—an idea or strategy—to express. Perhaps the most pressing idea or strategy currently facing the business world is how to make the business case for sustainability. Certainly, as people grasp the magnitude and speed of change that is needed to address the complex environmental, social and economic issues facing our society, there is a great need for leaders who can take us “far, fast.”
Taking organizations “far, fast” requires a new breed of leaders who have the courage and capacity to make a compelling case for sustainability, which can drive performance and positively impact the bottom line. This new kind of leadership is critical to any organization—business, nonprofit or government agency—that aims to successfully adopt sustainability strategies.
What it takes to be a leader
Businesses that want to compete in a future that includes fewer and more expensive resources and more pressures from shareholders, regulators and consumers must start by examining their leadership core competencies.
Management needs the capacity to navigate unpredictable challenges and understand how to position their company advantageously to address those challenges. Leaders who can learn and adapt quickly, commit people and resources confidently, and inspire others tend to lead innovative organizations.
Perhaps one of the best known examples of a successful sustainability leader is Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface Inc. When Anderson had the “spear in the chest” epiphany 14 years ago, he turned his carpet manufacturing business into one of the country’s leading sustainable businesses. Not only did Anderson help Interface significantly increase profits (stock prices have increased 550 percent in the past five years), but his efforts led the carpet industry as a whole to improve best practices. Today, Interface holds a significant share of the carpet industry and is halfway toward meeting its goals of using zero non-renewable resources, and producing zero waste and zero carbon emissions by 2020.
Globally, the company’s carpet-making uses one-third the water it used to. Its use of fossil fuels is down 45 percent. And the company’s worldwide contribution to landfills has been cut by 80 percent.
How does one follow Anderson’s footsteps and become a sustainability leader? First, it takes very practical skills and know-how such as:
- Understanding basic principles of whole systems, ecology and economics that are at the core of addressing issues such as climate change, energy supply and demand, and water shortages.
- Using the principles and frameworks of sustainable management to help orient, make sense of and guide business strategy.
- Being able to make the business case for sustainability and establish criteria for redesigning business models, products and services.
- Learning how to apply emerging management tools such as the “integrated bottom line” and stakeholder analysis and engagement, life-cycle analysis, full-cost accounting and sustainability reporting.
Business leaders can learn these skills from working in the trenches over many years, or they can enroll in one of the country’s growing number of sustainability-focused executive training programs or sustainable MBA programs. Given the added layer of complexity and opportunity that sustainability presents for businesses, more decision-makers are looking for outside support to help develop such competencies.
Courage more than skills
Foundational skills and sustainability know-how are certainly prerequisites, but as the story of Ray Anderson reminds us, creating a business case for sustainability requires more than knowledge and skills. Leaders must link those skills to less tangible attributes, such as the ability to monitor and manage their own behavior, inspire and develop the strengths of others, and ensure that the culture of the organization are aligned with its core strategy.