The more things change, the more they stay the same. Like most clichés, this one conveys some truth, as do words attributed to ancient Greek poet Hermesianax: “As within, so without.” Those who have endured inner-work fully enough to enjoy the outward results will attest that self-awareness leads to empowerment, which in turn leads to voice. Leadership, expressed through courage and contribution over passivity and disengagement, begins when we recognize our potential and accept the responsibility that goes with it. As within, so without.
So what does this have to do with sustainability? Everything. Truly sustainable sustainability - the kind that occurs when a critical mass internalizes new ways of thinking and being and leverages that into organizational and societal change – begins with the transformation of individuals.
“We live in a Knowledge Worker Age,” explains leadership authority Steven Covey in The Eighth Habit, “but operate our organizations in a controlling Industrial Age model that absolutely suppresses the release of human potential. Voice is essentially irrelevant.” As we struggle to implement sustainability and transition to the new economy, we keep bumping up against the apathy inherent in the dominant industrial mindset.
Fact is, most people show up at the office to perform a job, not to find fulfillment or contribute to the greater good. Is it any wonder they don’t embrace the above-and–beyond, uncompensated, under-appreciated job duty that they perceive sustainability to be? Today’s work environment was simply not designed to utilize and validate the human potential that has been long been sidelined in the single-minded pursuit of profits.
No surprises, therefore, that there is an excess of management and a dearth of leadership concerning sustainability. The metrics-based frameworks that are presented at global conferences and rolled out by C-suites are a necessary start, but they alone cannot fulfill the transformative work entailed in the paradigm shift to a sustainable future. This is an inconvenient truth that many CEOS and even CSR execs have forgotten, and most managers still have yet to learn.
Happily, influential leaders and organizations that manage to overcome the inertia have the potential to open the floodgates for sustainable change. A few are already giving us a glimpse of the cascading ripples that can occur from acts of inspired thought leadership.
This Time, It’s Personal
As a sustainability consultant, I've noticed that thought leadership as a method of branding is generally misunderstood and underutilized. On a practical level, many don't seem to understand how to do it. While organizational-level demonstrations of sustainability such as mission statements, awards, rankings, and reporting are important, thought leadership alone has the power to capture the imagination and galvanize the momentum necessary to execute big ideas. Where, for example, would Apple be without the thought leadership of Steve Jobs? It puts a face on a company’s brand, embodies values, and expresses dedication compassion, humility, and purpose. It can inject a company’s brand with authenticity and transparency surpassing that of other communications strategies.
Wal-Mart exemplifies the value of thought leadership for sustainability. Together with its suppliers, it has achieved prodigious results through initiatives such as the Wal-Mart Sustainability Supplier Assessment, which my own consulting firm has been privileged to use with clients. We can easily forget that before the company formulated such aggressive and groundbreaking strategies, one person had to assume the uncomfortable role of responding to environmental negligence and then engage employees to change the culture. In a singular act of thought leadership in 2005, former Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott inspired a sea change in his famous speech 21st Century Leadership.
Today, Wal-Mart’s programs are accelerating sustainability among thousands of businesses from mom-and-pops to multi-nationals. “Wal-Mart is our largest customer in the world,” said Al Iannuzzi, Johnson & Johnson’s senior director of Worldwide Health & Safety, in our recent interview. “Their focus on sustainability helps to reinforce the importance of our initiatives to our business.”
Johnson & Johnson’s sustainability goals, explains Iannuzzi, tie “back to our Credo, the backbone of our EHS processes and everything we do: We are to be good stewards and to protect the environment and be a good corporate citizen.” As strong as the company statement is, Iannuzzi still recognizes a need to share his personal knowledge. He has just released a new book Greener Products, which is designed to help change agents across the industry spectrum leverage the best practices that have helped Johnson & Johnson and other featured companies become industry leaders.
Sustainability is not a trend or a tally, but a transformation. Like another well-worn cliché that still holds true, in order to change the world, we must begin with ourselves. Companies that welcome expressions of personal transformation will see the entire organization benefit. Thought leadership is the evidence of a committed individual and an expression of voice. Consumers are listening and are increasingly rewarding such companies with their loyalty.