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Our Insights 15 Nov 2011

Nine Ways to (Re)Generate Sustainability Leadership

By Chris Guenther

I spent the week before last at the annual BSR conference, held in San Francisco, CA. It is among the year’s biggest confabs of corporate responsibility and sustainability experts, practitioners and aspirants. While I am not a serial or veteran attendee of the conference, I heard (and agree with) a consensus that it was better than others in recent memory. The crowd was generally upbeat and engaged, and that level of energy was both reflected and driven on by a series of lively keynotes, most notably the opening address by Al Gore, who took aim at the ‘insanity’ of short-term thinking, praised attendees for their efforts to advance sustainability, and reminded us “that the will to act is itself a renewable resource.”

Half-Empty vs. Half-Full

Of course, this degree of positive energy is notable in the context of an arguably worsening forecast for the sustainability agenda. The same week of the conference, the US Energy Department of Energy reported that global GHG emissions had shot up 6% in 2010, the largest ever single-year jump, and significantly worse than scientists’ existing worst-case scenarios had predicted. Meanwhile, the inevitable collision of population, resource constraints, and an economic model dependent on perpetual growth is playing out before our eyes, with growing risk to the social order that may yet be needed to steer through the resulting calamity. For evidence of this last point, we need only witness the still-unfolding sagas of the Arab Spring, the US Tea Party movement (though they seem to resent being lumped in in this way), and #occupywallstreet (the San Francisco iteration of which happened to be camped out directly across Market Street from the conference hotel).

So, why all the seeming excitement and optimism from those attending this year’s conference? On one hand, it is exciting just to work on these issues, and there’s nothing like a perpetually growing sense of urgency to keep our collective heart rate up. But there’s something else at work here, too. For all our concern about the lack of progress in sustainability outcomes, there is still recognition of the tremendous body of sustainability knowledge we’ve developed, and of an ever-expanding portfolio of ideas and solutions which we now must only scale in order to achieve the desired impact. Both at this conference and elsewhere recently, I’ve heard more and more people avowing their belief in tipping points, that things getting worse is only a necessary waypoint on the route to their getting better, and maybe the worse they get, the closer we come to the ultimate tipping point.

The Regeneration Agenda

This tension between cup-half-empty and cup-half-full has been evident at a series of roundtable discussions that SustainAbility and GlobeScan have held recently, exploring the relationships between leadership, trust and value in sustainability, and indirectly, the potential fate of the sustainability agenda in 2012 and beyond. (Note: We’ve blogged on summary thoughts from similar events in Washington, London, San Francisco and New York.)

While at BSR – where incidentally the conference theme was “Redefining Leadership” – SustainAbility and GlobeScan convened a group of corporate practitioners and other experts to consider how we can most powerfully contribute to the effort to catalyze more and better leadership for this agenda. Participants represented a range of companies and industries – AMD, Barclays, Cisco, Dell, Disney, Ford, PepsiCo, Sodexo and others – as well as partners and friends from GreenBiz Group, Sustainable Life Media and elsewhere.

Asked about their current outlook on sustainability, several expressed a degree of pessimism, and several others confessed to self-censoring in order not to seem too fatalistic. But the more we talked, the more it was agreed that despite the relative lack of progress, both the appetite for and actual potential of change are growing. Turning to the question of what a reinvigorated agenda for change may look like, we heard a mixture of the following:

  1. Simple: For most, the discussion remains new, the lexicon confusing. We need to quickly and clearly cut through that to reach new audiences.
  2. Fresh: People are jaded. They haven’t given up, but need to be convinced that the next change effort will be different, more meaningful.
  3. Personal: Too many experience sustainability as intellectual, abstract, not very well connected to the here and now. We must draw a clearer line between the issues and events that matter to all of us today, and the wider context they operate within.
  4. Systemic: Progress to date has been limited because it is too often a single company or other actor leading only within a narrow scope. Solutions must now begin to cross traditional boundaries, create new coalitions and value networks and drive change to scale.
  5. Adaptive: Uncertainty abounds, and yet cannot remain an excuse for further delay or loss of momentum. We must anticipate and react quickly to setbacks, sharp curves and emerging issues, and above all, keep moving.
  6. Collaborative: Even with the explosion of supporting technology, collaboration remains a messy and difficult affair, but if new coalitions are to propagate and succeed, the agents involved must embrace and practice vastly more of it.
  7. Distributed: Globalization and the democratization of communications run counter to the old “cult of the elite.” Leadership is perhaps now far more likely to be bottom-up than top-down, but even if not, the crowd will have the final word.
  8. Policy-Independent: There is consensus (and frustration) that government remains either unwilling or unable to respond. We need a pathway to success that welcomes government if they will play a role, but is not in any way dependent on political leadership.
  9. (Re)Generative: While we can – and should – start by revisiting and distilling the wisdom of those who pioneered the sustainability movement, we must also invite present-day and future leaders to augment, refresh and build upon it. In this way, we may create a virtuous cycle of innovation and insight needed to propel us forward.

Leadership in 2012 and Beyond

Whatever your view on the micro currents, it is hard to dispute that “the system” is undergoing substantial – and discontinuous – change. There are different views on whether the outlook is decidedly negative, or again, if we might finally be on the verge of a positive, lasting shift. But as we continue to gather and speak with others on this topic, there is a clear resolve not to give up, as well as a willingness – or, more and more so, an appetite – to radically rethink how we pursue the goal of sustainability.

As we’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, SustainAbility and GlobeScan are working on a suite of research aimed at catalyzing the sort of leadership needed to trigger and/or navigate this shift. We’re tremendously excited about the work we’ve already done, and will be extending and sharing it in various ways in the year ahead. Stay tuned for more, and in the meantime, please share your own responses and ideas in the comments below this post.

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