Follow the leader – actually, don’t…

Depending, that is, on how you define a leader. I have no empirical evidence to back this up at all, but I suspect that many of us are happy to believe who we are told the leaders are. How often do we reflect on what actually constitutes leadership? This blog follows on from Ilana’s excellent post about the value of questioning our assumptions and what we are told, over simply accepting the deluge of daily data as gospel, or worse, jumping to potentially flawed conclusions, Dellingpole-style (a poster-boy, if ever there was one, for imposing limits on the right to a free press…).

A few months ago I read a fabulous piece by William Deresiewicz, exploring Solitude and Leadership. It was reproduction of a lecture that he had given to the plebe class (the welcome address to new cadets) at West Point in 2009. Essentially, Deresiewicz’s aim was to impress upon a group of extreme overachievers, that there is most definitely a distinction between leadership and aptitude, achievement and excellence – they “have to be different things, otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning.”

For, at the moment, we play fast and loose with these words, using them interchangeably, rarely questioning which we mean. When combined, what they actually describe, according to Deresiewicz, is people who can jump through hoops, meet any challenge that is set to get from one stage to the next. In other words,“People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to” and thus, by definition, maintain the status quo, the routine of the hierarchy in which they operate so well.

This leaves us with lots of people who are very good at learning skills and answering questions about what they’ve learnt, but bad at asking questions about what they know. I’m reminded of a Richard Feynman anecdote: “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

Today’s leaders are people who can achieve goals, but don’t really understand how to set them; people who do admittedly think, long and hard sometimes, about how best to get things done, but rarely about why they are worth doing in the first place. Deresiewicz summarises: “What we don’t have… are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction… a new way of doing things… People, in other words, with vision.”

So if what we really need from our leaders is for them to be thinkers, then what does it mean to truly think? More importantly, for the impatient amongst you, how is this relevant to sustainability?

My research began with two simple questions in mind – can a sustainable initiative succeed if it is grounded in a business case and a financial return? Can businesses only guarantee sustainable measures when they are justified by values rather than financial returns?

As I’ve read around the subject of business values the questions have become less simple, more confused. For a start, it is pretty clear that values on their own aren’t enough. You need vision and purpose too, both of which require leadership. When it comes to sustainability, the leadership needs to be strong – bulletproof in fact.

So it was with particular dismay that I found myself at first utterly underwhelmed, then irritated, and finally teetering towards being outraged, by the lists of sustainability leaders that are compiled each year: presented to the interested few (for we are few) as gospels according to experts of good about those who are expertly leading the good. These reviews, reports and surveys all claim to be fair, diverse, representative – ultimately authoritative. And yet, on cursory examination, they are clearly not much more than reviews of which of the largest companies in the world are spending the most on marketing their efforts to protect their brands through ‘sustainability leadership’.

Of course, these lists do include some very large companies that deserve to be on the ‘leader board’. Unilever, if they stick to their incredibly ambitious goals, are trying to carve out a new way for a multi-national to behave. Similarly, Interface and Patagonia must be considered as ahead of the pack when it comes to the range and depth with which sustainability is factored into decisions, probably M&S too. But it cannot be  that the sustainability leaders on each continent are the same multinationals. It cannot be right that Wal-Mart’s highly publicised environmental agenda (a recent interviewee claimed that it couldn’t quite be called a vision yet) makes up for the “extraordinary asocial nature” (Forbes, 2012) of practices that are at the very heart of the organisation’s ‘value’. How is it that GE is presented in every leader list, its Ecomagination efforts proving it to be “one of the early pioneers in successfully building a sustainable business” (Interbrand 2012 Best Global Green Brand Report)? No matter that Ecomagination accounts for only 11.5% of GE’s total sales (Forbes, 2012), that it is amongst the largest toxic air polluters in the US (PERI, 2010), that it is responsible for producing more Superfund toxic waste sites than almost any other company, or that it has been recently trying to explain why it is exempt from paying corporation tax on profits (ProPublica, 2012). Yes, all action is a step in the right direction, but leaders?

These lists, to quote someone who I agree with wholeheartedly but shan’t name, are pernicious. If you ask ‘experts’ from across the world to name 10 sustainability leaders, and then simply aggregate the most common responses without any further detail, all that is ‘revealed’ is the lowest common denominator – those companies that the most people have heard of, who are best able to publicise efforts to become less bad. Guaranteed, you lose sight of most of the real leaders.

I can’t say it better than two Harvard academics: “The main shortcoming of almost every major environmental rating scheme, particularly those that rate environmental leadership, is their failure to address companies’ activism. Lobbying, campaign funding, and other such corporate contributions have the potential to greatly influence environmental legislation and should be awarded greater distinction alongside on-site environmental management.(HBS Working Knowledge Op-Ed, 2012)

This is how a company such as News Corporation (owner of Fox News – an inappropriately named TV channel available in over 100 million homes globally and home to prominent commentators that vehemently reject climate change, as well as those who merely stoke the fires of confusion and give credence to disinformation) can be given an A-grade by the Carbon Disclosure Project, the number 1 company in its sector for its carbon performance. It is, after all, ‘carbon-neutral’.

Or consider Barclays, recently back on the pariah list, opening its ‘Barclays Citizenship Report and 2015 Strategy’ by claiming  that is has a “clear sense of its business purpose – to help individuals, communities, businesses and economies progress and grow.” (Guardian, 2012). This was a report that was ‘independently audited’ and ‘assured’, no doubt, at great cost, by Ernst & Young – an activity that seems to involve no more than issuing a caveat that nothing in the report can be, ahem, assured.

The rankings, the surveys, the reports, are thus almost always based on secondary un-assured data that is itself incredibly compartmentalised, which is then gathered in a highly subjective way: unsurprising that the lists are often, if not always, misleading. And yet these lists build pedestals onto which we should be able to raise those companies that are leading, that are attempting to find new ways of doing things, of challenging the status quo, of working outside of current market norms. It’s a big world out there. The leaders will be diverse, not the same 20 behemoths we read about over and over again. They will come from different countries and operate in different industries. They will not all be publicly listed companies – they certainly won’t all be within the top 100 ‘brands’ in the world. Most importantly, they will act on their values, on their beliefs: sustainability will be a part of their business, not an opportunity for building brand equity. They will be compelled to align aspiration with action and achievement.

All of which means that they will have to think. And think hard. There is no perfect sustainability solution, only solutions (as in there is no perfect Pepsi, only perfect Pepsis… (Gladwell, 2004)). Each business, product and industry will have different problems and different customers with different wants and needs. So we need multiple solutions to multiple problems covering multiple systems that are all in some way interrelated – and that brings me back to leadership.

Deresiewicz goes on to focus on what it really means to think – and how hard it is to do so today. He discusses how multi-tasking diminishes mental ability; how we are constantly bombarded by other people’s thoughts and views, in the conventional wisdom, essentially in other people’s realities; how unsurprising it is that one’s first thought is usually someone else’s. He talks about concentrating.

Concentrating is focussing. It is thinking about something on your own for long enough so that you get to the point where you understand what it means for you, not for someone else. Only at this point can you begin to reflect on what you can or should do.

He concludes: “… it seems to me that solitude is the very essence of leadership. The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.”

A company cannot possibly be a sustainability leader if it simply being less bad in the way it operates. Even if it takes this mission to the extreme it would still be insufficient to make it a leader. It must be striving for something new – it must be finding a way that leads away from the edge of the cliff, not being at the front of the pack heading for it. To lead it must at first strive out on its own.

Companies such as Café Direct and Interface are leaders – not because Café Direct was the first to carry the Fairtrade mark, not because Interface is at the heart of industrial sustainability innovation – they are leaders because they refuse to work within the rules that the rest of the world is supine to. They are leaders because they constantly strive to do more, to do better. They are leaders because they take the time to think about what they are doing and who they affect by doing it. They are leaders because they have discovered avenues of influence within their systems, because they have created followers – not through bullying or brute force, but through vision and values (for more on the importance of followers, watch this talk).

We need more thinkers. We need real leaders. And we need the people who want to tell us who the leaders are, to spend a bit more time thinking too.

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One response to “Follow the leader – actually, don’t…

  1. Pingback: Follow the Leader – Actually, don’t… « J Hill-Landolt·

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