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Identity-Centered Leadership:
Enabling Individuals and Brands to Thrive through Sustainability

Brand leadership is about creating a connection between the brand and its customers. We can identify three waves through which brand leadership has evolved in relation to sustainability:

Brand leadership is about creating a connection between the brand and its customers. We can identify three waves through which brand leadership has evolved in relation to sustainability:

1. Responsibility-centered Leadership: In the early years of sustainability, business leadership viewed sustainable brands as fulfilling the corporation’s external obligations with regard to society and the environment. Sustainability’s value to business was that it demonstrated a more responsible corporation. The underlying theme was corporate social responsibility.

2. Advantage-centered Leadership: We are currently seeing a wave where business leadership views sustainable brands as more likely to reduce costs, enable differentiation, and increase brand equity than unsustainable brands. Sustainability’s value to business is its greater competitive advantage. The underlying theme is of sustainability as a driver of business innovations.

3. Identity-centered leadership: In this emerging wave, sustainability leaders are beginning to view sustainable brands in terms of organizational identity and its alignment with the personal identity of their consumers. Sustainability’s value to business is that it will enable a deeper and more authentic connection with customers, employees, and other stakeholders. The underlying theme is that organizational identity expresses values and beliefs that relate to both our heads and our hearts.

These waves of leadership are holonic, e.g., when organizations act from a place of core identity, they naturally engage in behaviors that lead to business advantage and promote responsibility toward the environment and society.

My recent article “Connecting Heart to Head” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2012) describes how two companies, PUMA and Alcoa, that I have worked with are beginning to tap into the power of organizational identity in enabling sustainability. In both cases, the personal experiences of senior executives were instrumental in their drive to develop more sustainable brands. The organizations went through five stages of implementation stretching over 3-5 years to enable sustainable brand leadership.

The most important stage in this third wave of sustainable brand leadership is to embed the concept of growth through sustainable brands into the organizational identity of the company. For example, PUMA’s brand identity was changed to “We are the DJ: the brand that joyfully mixes the influences from sport and lifestyle with the desire to contribute to a better world.” This identity has been the driver of PUMA’s business strategy and products since 2008. At Alcoa, organizational identity was redefined through two related questions that customers could ask: “Why aluminum?” and “Why Alcoa?” Alcoa’s organizational identity is slowly shifting from being a producer of primary aluminum to one that produces sustainable mid-stream and downstream products.

However, identity-centered leadership is only part of a larger being-centered leadership, where spirit too is connected to head and heart. At this deepest level, individual leadership is based on our sense of true self, rather than shifting identities or what we do and have. A sustainable identity, vision, and set of actions are pursued for their own sake. Their main value is in the change that they bring internally and the sustained inner joy that accompanies them, for individuals and business leaders alike.

It is the great paradox of being-centered leadership that in seeking an inner transformation, there is the possibility of transforming the world itself, because all good values, visions, and actions flow authentically from this sense of true being.

Exploring how this kind of being-centered brand leadership can connect individuals to organizations is a book in itself.