Twenty years ago the landscape for sustainable business practices was a wide open frontier. The idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR) was taking shape. Influential investors called for increased transparency on business’s social and environmental impact. And, as the first-born of the millennial generation entered the workforce, consumers directed their dollars towards businesses with a clear focus on people and planet — not just profit.
It wasn’t quite the Wild West, but companies who made their mark early played a huge role in defining what it meant to be a “sustainable business.” Anything visible counted — from Unilever’s comprehensive Sustainable Living Plan to business models like Tom’s “One for One” to B-Corp certification. These were the first steps in a growing movement.
As we round the corner into the next decade, sustainable business practices are more well-defined and no longer the domain of a pioneering few. Now we are asking companies to play an even more significant role. We want to see them deliver innovative solutions to pressing global issues like climate, poverty, energy, and water (to name a few). It not only gives them the social license to operate, but it’s a strategic imperative for our and their long-term survival.
Which begs the question: do we have the kind of leaders we need to create a more resilient, inclusive, sustainable 2040?
There are five traits that I’ve observed in current leaders that will shape our success in the next 20 years. In my work guiding sustainability partnerships from idea to implementation, these are the differentiators of the people who were most impactful, most able to paint an inspiring vision for the future, and most able to achieve it.
Here’s what I’ve observed in them:
1. They are societal leaders, not just business leaders.
These leaders are driven by a sense of purpose that allows them to think beyond the bottom line (or in the case of the non-profit and government leaders I’ve worked with, beyond their organization’s mission). They themselves are here to catalyze change. They have a deep sense of self-awareness, their personal values, their gifts, and how they affect others. They know how to channel their purpose into solutions that meet the needs of their communities — whether that be a small town or the world. They use their organization or industry as a vehicle for change, but their end goal comes from a belief that they have a much bigger role to play.
2. They know how to collaborate.
We’ve seen a flood of collaborative initiatives in the last 20 years. Coca-Cola and World Wildlife Fund work together to protect watersheds and water access. The Nature Conservancy and Dow Chemical explore new markets for ecological resources together. As our challenges get bigger, leaders from all sectors realize that they need one another to solve critical problems. But some efforts end up being nothing more than coordinating existing messages, projects, or resources. True collaboration requires co-creating a vision with your partners and stakeholders. It delivers on new outcomes. It also means sharing decision-making and risk. Collaborative leaders take this on with humility.
3. They value diversity in the whole of their life.
For the leaders who see diversity as a core solution to sustainability issues, it’s about much more than a corporate initiative. They seek out people, places, and perspectives in their personal lives that challenge their own lived experience. While that challenge may be uncomfortable, they welcome it because it disrupts their well-worn thought patterns. They value the differences of others, but also look for points of intersection. They do this daily — whether at work or home — and their lives are richer for it. These leaders cultivate inclusive workplaces, recognizing that diversity expands possibility.
4. They put transformation before transaction.
For better or worse, companies are driven by measurable results. Even social and environmental impact is measured by numbers. There are leaders who understand that to arrive at those numbers requires a shift in approach. For them, transforming business practices and workplace culture is the primary focus. They are interested in continuous learning, experimentation, and growth of their people. They believe that “working better” is more important that “doing more.” They play a long game, realizing that the numbers can only be sustained if we see our work as an integral part of living whole, meaningful lives. In this way, leaders encourage those around them to set out on a journey of personal mastery that transcends and includes bottom line performance.
5. They have a spiritual practice that guides their work.
We live in an era when publications like Conscious Company exist and meditation is part of corporate wellness programs. But most leaders still draw stark lines between their spiritual and professional life. Some of the most powerful moments I’ve had in a room full of leaders is when one of them is vulnerable in shedding light — if just a sliver — on the practices that guide their belief system and daily actions. It humanizes the leader and invites everyone in the room to be more than the sum of their professional accomplishments. In its simplest definition, spirituality is the thing that enlivens the human spirit. It means different things to different people. For some, it could be a walk in the woods. For others, it could be the joy that comes from being with friends and family. When a leader shows what enlivens him or her, it elevates us all.
These are the traits that I have witnessed and admired in leaders that I have worked with. What I see for the future of work is that they won’t be contained within a few leaders, but all leaders who are committed to creating a better world will be committed to develop these qualities in an intentional way. It is not an easy task to undertake. For those that do, they demonstrate that leadership is a practice and way of being — not a position to be attained.