Solving The Crisis Of Sustainable Leadership

Leadership

No matter what political, business and personal ideals and values you hold, few would argue that Europe and the US is currently beset with a crisis of leadership.

Although greater transparency is making everyday failures easier to see, the so called ‘99%’ have been disgusted by the spectacle of things like bank bosses being rewarded for staggering failures, US congress members profiting from insider trading, gridlock in the European Union and the US during attempts to make urgent fiscal policy decisions.

It’s a daunting task to try to figure out how to repair leadership so that it is more responsible and ‘sustainable’, but last Thursday Edge Equilibrium assembled a group of mainly corporate HR and Leadership and Development professionals from companies like BP, Loreal and CapGemini to do just that.

The argument behind Edge Equilibrium’s Sustainable Leadership model is essentially that leaders need to better integrate and balance the needs of themselves, society, the organisation and the planet to achieve better long term outcomes. Given the types of personalities in the room, this was preaching to the converted but when we started discussing how to achieve sustainable leadership the conversation became much livelier.

One major obstacle people identified is that corporate governance models are no longer fit for purpose given the complexity of modern society and business. They are overly simplistic and aimed at maximising shareholder value. Furthermore, one delegate pointed out that even when companies implement very lofty sounding CSR programmes, when you look at them more closely, they are ultimately there to maximize shareholder value.

But is that such a bad thing? I would argue that the most compelling way to persuade leaders to sign up to sustainability is to demonstrate that because it benefits all stakeholders, companies become more profitable over the long-term. It is certainly flawed for companies to design and implement sustainability programmes for the sole purpose of benefiting shareholders.

The qualifier of ‘long-term’ profitability brings me to the second big hurdle. We broadly agreed that to achieve sustainable leadership, leaders and their companies must start to plan and measure their performance over longer periods of time than quarters. One delegate pointed out Unilever CEO Paul Polman’s bold ‘Sustainable Living’ programme and his defying the markets by providing annual, rather than quarterly operational updates.

One noted that well-performing companies like Unilever are naturally in a stronger position to take bold stands like this (and should) while another complained that Unilever – known for manufacturing many harsh detergents – still has a long way to go in achieving environmental sustainability.

The most interesting part of the debate came towards the end when we broke into groups to propose actions we can take now to achieve sustainable leadership. In my group we initially felt overwhelmed, bordering on resigned. How on earth do we go about changing corporate governance and accounting practices? Then in our despair a simple idea revealed itself based on the old adage ‘people get the democracy they deserve’.

We started to throw out a raft of ideas centred on what ordinary workers can and should do to take more control and responsibility for their employment lives rather than waiting for leaders to do the right thing. We reflected that greed, complacency, fear-based decision making, ruthlessness, duplicity, bullying and laziness are certainly not the sole province of corporate leaders: in fact they exist at every level of companies, large and small. People and organisations at the top don’t simply rob us of our money and power.

If we’re really honest with ourselves, we give it to them – largely through inattention. (Like so many high-fliers in the boom years, I went through years without once properly looking at my bank statement and became furious when I found out I was paying for a gym membership for 14 months after I had cancelled it. But whose fault was that really?)

Our team became excited by the idea that it may just be possible to turn this massive ship around if individuals in the workplace commit to improving their own self-awareness, values, behaviours and skills. In doing so, the ‘99%’ will genuinely be in a much stronger and credible position to hold their leaders to account and demand sustainable leadership.

How do you think we can make leadership more sustainable?

Sarah Lafferty is co-founder and director of Round Earth Consulting and a communications expert with 20 years experience. Sarah’s employment and consulting engagements in the US and Europe have spanned every business scenario imaginable from promoting technology start-ups to meet IPO and acquisition goals to heading internal change management programmes in large corporates. View Sarah’s full LinkedIn profile here. Sarah’s fascination with leadership arose from having observed the material effects that executive behaviour and communication have had on company performance.