By Henk Campher
One of the many interesting side discussions I had was with Christine Bader, John Friedman and a few others about how CEOs say they want to lead when it comes to sustainability but most of them are completely absent in the debate. There are leaders — like Elon Musk from Tesla, Sir Richard Branson from Virgin, Craig Jelinek from Costco and Blake Mycoskie from TOMS — who have taken up very vocal and thoughtful leadership roles. But in most cases, CEOs say they want to lead but go completely missing when it comes to substance. They give us the usual “it is in our DNA” nonsense and jargon and lack substance to back it up. Sometimes they even give us the “our employees are our greatest asset” baloney.
When we are lucky these empty words will give us lots of hot air for a little while, but many CEOs aren’t willing to take up true leadership. To lead is to suffer the consequences of leading; to sometimes have to take people (consumers, investors, employees, etc.) to places they do not want to go. That is what leadership requires — brave and bold like a Star Trek captain who will “boldly go where no man has gone before.” Unfortunately most business leaders are just plain missing in action and hiding behind the soft and cozy walls of “investment community.” That isn’t leadership. That is the yes-men mentality that has taken hold amongst too many leaders.
Novel idea: To be a thought leader you need a thought — and you need to lead. A bit of both please.
That is why I love those true business leaders out there and why we need to go out of our way to applaud them. It is so easy to go back into the comfy offices and focus on the next quarter or lead on soft issues. Or hide behind some lobby group or business association that lobbies for less regulation and lower taxes or deny climate change. Do not blame the public when they don’t trust businesses or when consumers shout “greenwashing.” True leadership is undermined by those leaders who fight the issues that are important to society — fair taxes, less business subsidies, decent wages, climate action, etc. Every time a business leader speaks out against these issues or are caught with their hand in the pocket of a politician or lobbyist, the reputation of business in general takes a knock. Don’t blame the consumer. Blame your CEO. Not enough businesses are showing them that they can be trusted. Ask yourself — how does your leader rate amongst CEOs?
We need to support those leaders who are willing to step up and speak out. But we also need to make it possible for them to speak out against other business leaders. Those business leaders hiding in dark offices or behind interest groups undermine true business leadership. And they undermine the interest of business in general. The public doesn’t have the voice to speak out, and the media is too soft on these business leaders. We need business leaders to speak out. We need heroes — business heroes.
True leaders tackle tough issues and build companies for today AND tomorrow. They build sustainable businesses. True leaders don’t shy away from the tough issues they face today and the tough issues they will face tomorrow. And true business leaders will point to those “leaders” who undermine confidence in business and reject their voices and their business models — loudly and vocally. They will remind us of who the true leaders are — those who lead. True leaders are never afraid. True leaders have courage, and they lead.
I leave you with this quote from one of my personal heroes and one of the great modern leaders, Nelson Mandela, “There are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people the right way”.
Image credit: Flickr/opensourceway
A series of quick & dirty opinion pieces by Henk Campher. Senior Vice President, Business + Social Purpose and Managing Director of Sustainability at Edelman out in the Wild West of San Francisco. Disrupter of purpose. Engineer of big ideas. Slayer of myths. Social media junkie – @angryafrican. He never wears ties. Ever. But always wears an accent with a strategy and opinion in his back pocket. Please note this series will not focus on individual companies and any reference is purely to provide color commentary.
Follow Henk Campher on Twitter.