Some experts say that we are on the verge of one of biggest changes in how we do business since the industrial revolution, one that involves social and environmental values. And that has huge implications for the kind of leaders we need in our organizations.
Tim Sanders, author of Saving the World at Work: What Companies and Individuals Can Do to Go Beyond Making a Profit to Making a Difference, has argued that employees and customers want to work for and support companies that share their ethical values. He believes we are in the midst of a "responsibility revolution" in which sustainable business practices and social responsibility will become something no company can afford to ignore. Ultimately, it's all about doing good at work -- why sustainability and corporate responsibility are becoming easier -- and necessary for survival. Sanders argues that it means making a difference to the greater community and the planet while you do your job and helping your company survive the coming responsibility revolution.
If Sanders if correct we'll need leaders in our organizations that have a different focus, says renowned psychologist, Daniel Goleman. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Goleman argues that visionary leaders tackle great challenges with grand consequences over long timespans. How long? Well, the current crises in the global economy and the consequent reshaping of capitalism will work themselves out over a decade or two. But the threats posed by the potentially inexorable ecological meltdown of our planet will play out over centuries.
Goleman says that meltdown has direct implications for business leaders. The vast majority of industrial platforms, designs, chemicals and other habits of commerce were developed blind to their ecological impacts. The discipline that reveals these impacts is but a decade or two old: industrial ecology, which measures the manifold consequences of any product with an engineer's precision. The main method, life cycle assessment, ( LCA) renders values for the environmental, health (and, more lately, social) impacts of an item over the course of its entire life cycle.
This leap requires going beyond today's business practices of identifying inefficiencies to save money and involves creating a marketplace where ecological impacts of every kind become a basis for gaining or losing market share. Leading this change in the most basic habits of business and industry will require leaders with daring, great vision, remarkable persuasive and collaborative skills, and a keen business sense.
Achieving such an ecologically intelligent future will depend not on the actions of politicians, but executives at the companies who take the lead in embracing radical transparency as a core business strategy. Going first will immediately raise the bar for everyone, not the least by alerting the shopping public to their new power to weigh ecological impacts along with price and quality in their purchase decisions. Needless to say, such companies will score enormously in reputation points.
Goleman says there are countless executives leading sustainability initiatives at companies worldwide. Good starts, but no company has come near the full vision. Which consumer products company will accomplish the ultimate raising of the bar for all the rest: making Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) data fully transparent, vowing to lead the way in perpetual ecological upgrades? What retailer will be the first to post LCA product ratings next to the item's price tags, and have brands compete for shelf space on the basis of their ecological footprint?
Whichever company that turns out to be will, no doubt, have a great leader at the helm, one who will hold a hallowed place in the history of business in the 21st century.