What makes a true leader in society? A look at the business world

Growing up, we are told to be leaders. At least that’s what I’ve been told. Leadership is celebrated in society, as it should be. But recently, I have begun to question what a leader really is.

My main question about leadership is this: if a leader is the head of an organization or group that is perpetuating the status quo, and there are problems with that status quo, are they still a leader? I would tend to say no, but it is certainly not a question with any definitive answer.

In my eyes, this question is especially applicable to the business world today. Our current business model, the “take-make-waste” paradigm, and free market practices that externalize costs onto society, although shifting, is still flawed. For example, the failure of the market to address air pollution from burning fossil fuels has left the general public and taxpayers with a massive public health bill in the form of asthma, lung cancer, and other respiratory diseases, not to mention environmental damage. Thus, the costs of such energy are artificially cheap. Our current model has helped a lot of people get rich but has also led to a lot of environmental destruction and income inequality.

There is a better way to do things- not socialism, but better business. Some are calling it “Capitalism 2.0,” an era where corporations become more sustainable and socially responsible. And it’s beginning to happen. Despite the recent recession, the worst since the 1930s, more and more multinational corporations are adopting sustainability and social responsibility into their business plans. Unilever, Puma, Nike, GE, and Pepsi are considered some of the leaders in sustainable business among large companies.

There are many things a company to do to “green” itself. It could be cutting energy use and sourcing more renewable energy to cut carbon emissions, reducing waste and setting ambitious waste reduction goals, sourcing raw materials like timber from sustainable sources that are independently certified by credible organizations, and so on.

Companies are not adopting sustainability out of pure goodwill either; they are finding it to be good business and help the bottom line. The Voinovich School, with its Consortium for Energy, Economics, and the Environment and involvement in projects like the Zero-Waste Initiative, is helping the Appalachian region with this transformation.

So back to my original question: who are the real leaders? In my mind, the true leaders are the ones driving positive change, not those in leadership positions that are benefiting from the status quo, fighting to keep it that way, and failing to address the significant global problems we face. For me, the environment in particular hits home as my principal concern.

Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, is one man whom I admire as a true leader. His company has a comprehensive vision for a sustainable future, elaborated in the company’s “Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.” He also has been an outspoken advocate for governments to take action on climate change and source more renewable energy, among other things.

Ray Anderson is another such leader. What he did was to turn Interface Flor into a leader in sustainability, a carpet company in a traditionally “dirty” industry, is truly amazing.

For change to happen most quickly, it must come from the top. We need more leaders in business to recognize the problems in our current system and drive positive change through sustainable business and corporate social responsibility.

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2 thoughts on “What makes a true leader in society? A look at the business world

  1. The next step now is to make sure it becomes attractive for top business people to actually drive these changes. Who’s going to give them that incentive?

  2. Good point- and the business case for sustainability is becoming quite strong. For example, there is the obvious low-hanging fruit with things like reduction in energy use (and costs) through efficiency and conservation, and waste reduction can also bring about significant cost-savings because business can turn their waste stream into a revenue stream..If you think about it, everything that goes to the landfill was once a resource, so companies are beginning to tap into these underutilized materials, and instead of paying to have their trash hauled off-site to a landfill, they are getting paid by companies that come and recycle those resources into something else. The recycling companies benefit from cheap raw materials.

    On top of this you have improved brand and reputation from marketing sustainability efforts. You also have less risk from environmental and social governance and easier access to capital. Companies are seeing these benefits from their sustainability initiatives. Hope that helps to point out the incentives

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