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In Search of Sustainable Leadership: Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet

Image Credit: EconPublic/Twitter

This is the eighth and final installment in a series of articles examining the many facets of ‘sustainable leadership.’ Find links to earlier posts at the end of this piece.

We started our search for sustainable leadership as a way to understand more deeply what it takes to build a 'sustainable brand.' What we quickly found is that sustainable leadership brings the potential to make existing models of leadership “obsolete” by creating organizations that grow stronger with every challenge they face.

The subsequent articles led us through the steps needed to achieve this. They showed how sustainable leadership uses vision, values and purpose to inspire people to move through the three stages of transition. We learned how to create an inspiring vision, how to find opportunities in a crisis, and how to choose the one that is best for us. Finally, we saw that implementation is more likely to succeed when we learn to make clearer sense of a changing world and connect more deeply with who we are and what matters most to us.

Together, these steps define the seven competencies of sustainable leadership.

Placed in reverse order, they also describe a process for achieving sustainable leadership:

  1. Center and ground: connect deeply with who you are and what matters most to you
  2. Check for mistaken assumptions, spot emerging patterns
  3. Find more opportunities in the situation you face
  4. Choose the one that suits you best
  5. Check how it aligns with your purpose and values
  6. Articulate your chosen way forward as an inspiring vision-story
  7. Use vision, values and purpose to speed the transitions as you move forward

Any individual who applies this framework will connect more deeply with what matters most to them, find more ways to apply that in the situations they face, and increase their ability to get the outcomes they want. As they do so they will learn more about themselves and become more able to put that into practice; they will self-actualize.

Any organization that applies this framework will become more stable and directed. When issues arise, it will know which ones to ignore and which to pay attention to. For issues that matter, it will find a wider range of solutions and put them into practice more quickly and inspiringly. Such organizations will use change to become stronger. In a VUCA time of constant change, this brings sustainable competitive advantage.

Generative Enterprise, Generative Economy

Combined, such people and organizations become a new kind of enterprise, aligned around their shared purpose and values:

  • The people provide the energy and enthusiasm for getting things done. This brings higher quality, shorter timeframes, lower costs, plus greater resilience and adaptability. As Gallup has shown, “a highly engaged workforce means the difference between a company that outperforms its competitors [by 147 percent!] and one that fails to grow.”
  • The organization provides an inspiring and supportive environment. This not only gives people more enthusiasm for tackling the issues that arise, but also enables them to do so in ways that challenge, stretch and develop them. The more that people then discover and develop their own unique talents (self-actualize), the more they will develop and deliver unique products and services for the organization. This is why companies such as Google create “an environment where people can flourish and grow,” then commercialize the best of whatever emerges.

Together, organization and people become “generative”: they each help the other to grow.

Together, they become a kind of mechanism for putting their shared values and purpose into practice in a VUCA world.

Together, they generate stability, enthusiasm and growth.

What happens next, as Paul Polman of Unilever has described, is that others feel attracted to join and contribute. In this way, the generative attitude of a single sustainable leader becomes manifested into the culture of an organization, then outwards into a generative business ecosystem of suppliers, customers and investors that each help the others to grow.

Sustainable Leadership Revisited

Let’s now return to our map of sustainable leadership to understand it more clearly.

This map lays out the activities that have been described as “sustainability.” It shows that sustainability is not an activity but an attitude of mind – of how to carry out the activities any business needs to perform.

In the bottom left corner, that attitude is about complying with the minimum requirements set by others. This is extractive leadership.

Towards the center of the chart, sustainability is about optimizing the value, cost and risk of our organization by aligning more collaboratively with our externalities. This is where many of us are now.

And towards the top right of the chart, we are seeing an emerging approach – one that is about recognizing ourselves as part of something bigger (purpose), then working to adapt our behavior in ways that improve the performance of that whole (ecosystem). This is generative, sustainable leadership.

Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet

Humanity currently faces a choice.

At the end of each year, we can either have a little less of the key resources that matter or a little more.

Having less at the end of each year is the extractive model of leadership we have followed for thousands of years. When humanity was small and Earth’s resources seemed infinite, this made sense. But we are now using the resources of 1.6 Earths per year. We are shrinking the carrying capacity of our spaceship. We need to change our habits.

Strategically, the only alternative is to generate a little more of the key resources that matter. This might seem impossible, but that is only because we have not yet learned how to do it. We need to become generative – to generate more.

Unilever and others are already showing us how to do this. By adopting a different attitude (one we call “sustainability”) and using this to inspire new solutions, it is possible to building generative organizations, and generative business ecosystems, where each part grows the others. 

This can bring us infinite growth on a finite planet - not necessarily infinite in terms of quantity, but infinite in quality, variety and value.

The aim of this series of articles has been to make this process explicit and then accelerate it.

We can create an abundant, generative world by creating abundant, generative organizations. And we can create abundant, generative organizations by creating abundant, generative leaders.

The seven steps of sustainable leadership outlined above are a way to achieve this. They are a framework (with tools) for enabling any of us to connect more deeply with what matters most to us, find more ways to apply that better, and in so doing develop ourselves, our organizations and the world.

 

In Search of Sustainable Leadership, the series:

  1. In Search of Sustainable Leadership
  2. Building Antifragile Competitive Advantage
  3. Managing Transitions
  4. Creating Inspiration
  5. An Opportunity Mindset
  6. Choosing a Way Forward
  7. Keep Your Head When They Are Losing Theirs
  8. Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet

Finn Jackson (@finnjackson2) is an author, consultant, facilitator and coach who is working to create a generative world. His first bookThe Escher Cycle, was called "a blueprint for winning any game your business chooses to play" that “describes… [Read more about Finn Jackson]