I had the good fortune to join a call this morning organized by members of Cohort 4 from the Donella Meadows Leadership Fellowship. The topic was branding: How do we convey the work we do, its importance, urgency and value?
This was a recurring theme throughout our fellowship year. The logic follows that if we could find a way to better communicate the realities of climate change and the need for mitigation, well, then, it wouldn’t be quite so urgent. It wouldn’t be so urgent because the work would be done.
It’s the same as what I used to say when people would would ask if I aspired to be a Chief Sustainability Officer. Sure, I’d say, but what I’d really like to do is work myself out of a job. Because when companies understand the importance of sustainability, they stop creating CSR offices and other ad hoc programs and instead incorporate sustainability into the jobs of every employee. Or at least into the roles of the heads of strategy.
I love being in meetings or calls with Dana Meadows Fellows. They are some of the most extraordinary people I have met: intelligent, passionate, driven and accomplished. They are inspiring. I never leave a meeting without feeling moved and motivated. Fellows come from all sectors, including not-for-profits, think tanks, government, media, philanthropy, corporate, civic,you name it. This makes for extraordinary collaboration.
The unique nature of the fellows environment also surfaces a key challenge sustainability professionals face: balancing the tension between principle and profit. Many of the sustainability professionals you meet are driven by principle, and that principle translates to passion. In a corporate context, that passion is too often mistranslated as “touchy-feely’ or denigrated as the sign of a “do good’er.” And in a countermove, those of us in corporate roles began to over-emphasize the dollar saves and risk management benefits of incorporating sustainability into business operations. I think I even once caught myself saying something to the effect of, we don’t do it because it’s the right thing to do, we do it because it makes smart business sense. How absurd a comment! It is as if, in order to gain acceptance in the corporate environment, anything outside of efficiency gains has no value, or at least no business value. Corporate strategy must be driven by metrics and analytics, not passion.
And yet one of the most valuable companies in the world was brought up by a leader who exemplified working with passion. Steve Jobs was driven by the principle of good design. He was passionate about it, not afraid to show it, and managed to combine passion with unprecedented business acumen. Based on everything I’ve read, his management style wasn’t exactly “touchy-feely” either. Without the passion behind Jobs’s driving principle, Apple would not be what it is today.
I was trying to express this at an AGRION panel on which I recently participated. The moderator, Andrew McKeon, asked for last words. We had spent a lot of time discussing tax and other business incentives, so I added that what I thought we needed was inspiration, a charismatic leader that will help people to feel part of something bigger than themselves. In response Andrew summed it up perfectly, “We need a Steve Jobs of sustainability.”