Companies today are grappling with the complexities posed by massive acceleration in technology, globalization and planetary changes, as Thomas Friedman describes in his book "Thank You for Being Late." Friedman says we will need to entirely redesign our approach and our structures, with a commitment to the common good.
I believe corporate sustainability provides a roadmap for how to navigate those complexities. "Sustainability," as we now define it, emerged out of environmental compliance and corporate social responsibility, and is rapidly evolving as a new culture for organizations. Sustainability managers implement cross-functional strategies designed to lower risks and increase the long-term viability of their companies, looking to create value for all types of stakeholders. This is a much more holistic approach than large multinationals had been used to. It spans the economic sphere (the ability of a company to be profitable over time, not only in the short term), as well as the environmental (including mitigating risks associated with resource availability), the social (from human rights in the supply chain to employee empowerment and productivity), and the governance spheres (values-based rules for the corporation). It means leaders can no longer think in terms of separate silos. It means less competition and more collaboration. It means creativity and receptivity.
Here are five skills leaders will need in an accelerated, interconnected, innovative and sustainable world:
- Big-picture vision. Leaders will need the ability to seek value for all stakeholders at the same time. A company's ecosystem of stakeholders includes its shareholders, but also its employees, customers, suppliers, communities, and natural capital. Leaders need to be able to envision the ripple effects of any action on all these stakeholders, and act strategically and proactively to engage them as partners in a common journey.
- Deep listening. Engaging with stakeholders includes the ability to listen to them on a deep level, which means opening oneself, letting go of preconceived ideas and foregone conclusions, connecting to others, and honoring all voices and contributions. Great innovations can come from an assembly line worker, a quiet team member, or even a granddaughter. A successful leader of the future will need to be receptive.
- Authenticity. Leaders will need to be able to follow their intuition with clarity and confidence. But being in touch with one's intuition requires a high level of authenticity, removing personal barriers such as prejudice or triggers stemming from trauma. Each of us has a powerful authentic self, if only we could get to the core of it, and when we do, our intuition becomes as clear as daylight.
- Courage. Clear intuition will be necessary to see the path forward on a rollercoaster ride of disruptive technologies, climate change, changing demographics and resource availability. Decisions to radically change course will sometimes need to be made. When big-picture vision gives us insight into imbalances in a system that will eventually become unsustainable, we will need to courageously call for a new strategy.
- Humility. The complex world we live in is a world with multiple voices. A large majority of the population has access to the Internet and can engage, create, and broadcast opinions. Leaders need to know that everyone has gifts to offer, and honor the responsibility of each to bring those gifts. The problems society faces are enormous: poverty, human trafficking, urban crowding, food security, deforestation, and so many others - and solutions require participation and responsible behavior. A successful leader will need to be a project manager, a choreographer, a facilitator. The task at hand requires greatness, that of a servant of the greater good.
Some of these skills may not typically be seen as male skills, but are qualities we may associate with mothers and grandmothers. Yet every human, whether man, woman, or some other gender, possesses talents associated with the masculine and talents associated with the feminine. Regardless of gender, the leaders of the future can dig within themselves to find qualities such as these five to help propel us into a more sustainable, inclusive and prosperous future. It's a new world, and about time we adapt.