I did not think about it before sitting down this evening (January 16, 2012), but to write about leadership on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is to feel one’s own limitations.
I am Canadian, and as such I am obliged to reflexively protest how different I am from the American cousins among whom I have chosen to live (and marry). But with King there is no protest. He is a sterling example of the inspiration the USA has periodically offered the world regarding the hope and change possible when citizens unite, and long has been one of my own inspirations. I took joy watching my six-year-old daughter study his legacy this month at school. She’s been enraptured, and I immersed in the power of his message all over again.
I flew today from San Francisco to Washington, DC – where I hope to visit this week the new MLK Memorial on the National Mall. I read en route the Time cover story Warren Buffett Is on a Radical Track. Buffett attributes most of the reason he’s become activist and engaged over time to his late wife, Susan Thompson Buffett. The article singles out the occasion she took him to hear Reverend King speak at Grinnell College, where King’s words ‘It may be true that the law can’t change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless’ galvanized Buffett to get more involved in issues of equity and justice.
My title plays with this notion of changing hearts, with the way in which Buffett came to believe things need to be different and has since set out to do what he can to make it so. He is a business leader who has had a change of heart so profound that his persona now seems to be about giving (like 99% of his billions already pledged to charity kind of giving) and demanding recognition of a different notion of fairness for capitalism. His recent and now near infamous prescription? Rich and powerful people and organizations should pay more (literally: and, yes, even in taxes) for the tremendous opportunities society allows them to enjoy.
Resist (Risk), Accept (Risk), Act
The transition from accepting sustainability issues to addressing them is a tremendously difficult thing for business leaders to embrace. When issues (BIG issues: think ecosystem limits which mean commodity inputs for profitable products will spike in price and then dry up) demand changing or abandoning familiar, comfortable and successful business models, resistance is to be expected.
Even so, the change from resisting data likely to demand change to admitting its fundamental truth generally proves simpler than the subsequent shift to action. For even once new information and worldviews are embraced, leaders’ ability to evolve their organizations is limited by context e.g. available skillsets, historic mindsets, consumer preference, investor expectations and the regulatory environment.
This year, like its peers, is just another on the calendar. But not for sustainable development. Ecological systems are stressed in such that we almost can’t afford the luxury of worrying about the classic sustainability focus on intergenerational equity. Rather, individuals and brands that want to make a difference have to think in terms of how to deliver sustainability in this generation, else there might be no future equity to apportion. Sustainability demands leadership capable of accepting the enormity of the challenge that sustainable development entails and willing to explore and support the evolution of business models and markets to address it.
To plumb lessons of sustainability leadership past and catalyze greater scale and speed on this agenda in the near future, SustainAbility and GlobeScan set out in 2011 to interview a remarkable set of nearly two dozen sustainable development pioneers including: Lester Brown, Madame Gro Harlem Brundtland, Bill Ford, Israel Klabin, Sir Mark Moody-Stuart and Rajendra Pachauri. We will couple insights from these conversations with global public opinion research and use both as a platform to engage a wider public discussion on sustainability leadership in 2012 and beyond.
As much as we are excited about the intelligence we will gain from taking stock in this way, the key will be how we use it to ensure that new pioneers emerge, whether because of their own change of heart, or motivated by their ability to change the hearts of others. As individuals and organizations, our collective challenge for the year and years immediately ahead must be to increase our capacity to identify, nurture and then follow these trailblazers.
As with the pioneers who dared to transit west across the American frontier, this will mean embracing risk – but we are increasingly aware of great and growing risks in stasis, so must believe it will be possible to develop in leaders in business, civil society and government the will to create a sustainable economy in the near term. Inverting King, it’s an effort to change and then steel hearts to action where laws both natural and human have failed to do so.