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Boldness: The Key Lesson From the Pioneers of Sustainability

September 18, 2013

Whether you refer to the field as sustainability, corporate social responsibility, or shared value, today social and environmental issues are more a part of everyday business than ever before.  We are now at a point where we can look back and celebrate the history of the field. And it’s in that spirit that I collaborated with Ellen Weinreb of the Weinreb Group to publish a report today where we identified six pioneers in two different categories of Chief Executive Officers and Thought Leaders.

The report “Pioneers of Sustainability: Lessons from Trailblazers” is the result of a survey of prominent leaders in the field of sustainability conducted by the Weinreb Group. Among the Chief Executive Officer Pioneers, survey respondents selected Lee Scott of Walmart, Paul Polman of Unilever, and the late Ray Anderson of Interface. In category of “Thought Leaders,” sustainability professionals chose Paul Hawken, Peter Senge, and Michael Porter for his work in corporate strategy and in Shared Value.

We had the opportunity and honor to interview all five pioneers plus Jim Hartzfeld who was a colleague and friend of the late Ray Anderson.  The pioneers shared their perspective on their work, the direction of sustainability, and some of the lessons they have learned along the way.

Through our interviews with them, I was struck by the notion that each of these leaders champions a trait that is often missing in sustainability: boldness. Too often sustainability professionals get bogged down in activities that, while often important, lack a power to make iconic shifts in the marketplace. Be they metric dashboards, wrestling with the company’s legal team over specific words in public statements, or spending all day in meeting after meeting after meeting.

These Pioneers did something different.  Rather than distracted, they were determined to create new ideas, articulate a vision for sustainable commerce, and challenge the status quo. For example, as Michael Porter told us, “This kneejerk reaction, that any social issue or dealing with any social problem actually creates costs for the company and reduces profitability, that whole instinct is flawed.”

In essence, they created “before and after moments” for sustainability and they did so by not being timid. This doesn’t mean that every CSR report that is published should be a revolutionary event. But what it does imply is that at a minimum, as a leader in your organization, you shouldn’t necessarily take “No” as an acceptable answer. Challenge yourself, your colleagues, your organization, and the companies you buy from and invest it to do more.

Sometimes you have to take leaps of faith in order to be bold. As former Walmart CEO Lee Scott told us, “The secret is to begin, to move forward despite the uncertainty and to become comfortable with much greater transparency and collaboration, so that we can bravely lead for a new order of things.”

These Pioneers are an inspiration to so many people. Take a look at their stories by reading the report, which is available for free on the Weinreb Group’s web site . Let’s get the discussion going. What do you take away from these Pioneers? How can you apply their work to how you are trying to do in your work?

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