Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Henrik Henriksson headshot

Hail the Era of Activist CEOs - When Purpose and Platform Converge

In the past year we’ve seen inspirational examples of activist CEOs who did their part to guide the world through some tough times.
Activist CEOs

This article on the role of activist CEOs was co-written by Elaine Weidman Grunewald.

In the past year we’ve seen inspirational examples of business leaders and activist CEOs who are guiding the world through some tough times. They have taken a stand, from their handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic to taking action against racial inequality amid the Black Lives Matter protests to the influential Business Roundtable raising its voice in defense of the U.S. Constitution in the wake of recent violent protests and attacks against the U.S. Capitol.

Leveraging your personal influencing platform is one of those “X-factors” that determine whether a business leader will have exponential impact in driving sustainability leadership, as we describe in our book, Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Your Industry and the World.

We wrote this book because of our own commitment to encourage business leaders to step up to the unprecedented and urgent challenges we face. Inaction or incremental responses are no longer enough. And because our own experience in leading Swedish companies and otherwise has shown us that Sweden, while not perfect, abounds with leading examples of companies working profitably and meaningfully to move the needle on sustainability.

In Sweden, consensus and cooperation rule

In Sweden, there is a special kind of synchronicity between business leaders and society: the idea that every sector is invested in creating a fair and equitable society that is socially inclusive and environmentally responsible. As Robert Strand, the Executive Director of the Center for Responsible Business and Lecturer at the Berkeley Haas School of Business shared with us, the idea of cooperative advantage is enshrined in the Scandinavian culture.

Editor’s note: Be sure to subscribe to our weekly Brands Taking Stands newsletter.

Successful leaders, including this emerging group of activist CEOs, can use their platform to shine a spotlight on important sustainability issues, and when times are tough or challenges too great to solve alone, they form cross-sector alliances with unconventional partners to get tough things done. They know their facts, match their positions with meaningful and consistent action, and engage fairly, transparently and constructively to influence the conversation with the end goal of achieving sustainability goals. They dare to demand bold action, take risks and stand for something they believe in, despite the potential backlash.

Authenticity makes the platforms of activist CEOs credible

We believe more business leaders can, and should, use the platform of their company, industry, or a personal conviction to amplify their voice. Some 69 of the 100 richest entities in the world are companies - with that power comes responsibility. We’ve seen the emergence of more activist CEOs as today’s pioneering business leaders step up and speak out. If done credibly and authentically, leaders can add significant momentum to the search for solutions to the increasingly complex issues affecting business and society. This is becoming a fundamental aspect of leadership: Using your own personal influencing platform to make your organization’s purpose genuine and impactful.

An authentic influencing platform first and foremost is about being true to one’s own words, always connecting back to purpose and values. That is as true for building credibility within your own organization as it is for reaching out beyond the limits of your company or industry to achieve positive impact at scale. Often this involves finding the right partners and alliances and forming a united front on the issues that you are most willing to fight for. And far from this being an altruistic, charitable act, expanding your sustainability leadership platform should create even stronger competitive advantage.

Even without external stakeholder pressure, these activist CEOs are seizing the moral imperative to act and make their voices heard, including on controversial topics that could potentially invite customer backlash. Many leaders find that taking a stand is surprisingly positive for building a brand with purpose. Still others meet criticism when their stand is found to be inconsistent or inauthentic.

Bring others on board

Every leader’s voice matters in creating a new corporate narrative on sustainability. To make their platforms exponential, companies can work within and across sectors and leverage public-private partnerships. Working cross-sector, as opposed to working within a sector, can bring new diversity and shed new light on problems which can in turn deliver new opportunities for catalyzing change. Further, public-private partnerships are key to tackle bigger issues that no single party would have the incentive or capacity to solve on its own.

Inaction really isn’t a choice for a leader who wants to leave a meaningful legacy. There is no shortage of problems demanding urgent solutions and business as usual can no longer apply to e.g., climate change, which clearly requires urgent action.

The new U.S. presidential administration is an opening for business leadership

While 2020 was a tumultuous year, there are signs that new leadership is shifting in a more positive direction. In the new administration of U.S. President Joseph Biden, business leaders are expected to have new opportunities to lead on environmental action and other ESG (environmental, social and governance) issues. As one of his first acts in the Oval Office, Biden signed an executive order to have the United States rejoin the Paris climate agreement and has signaled his desire that the U.S. should once again be a leader with respect to climate change.

This show of commitment from the top levels of government is an opening for business leaders as well. The support of the private sector will be critical to solving global challenges like climate change, as no government can do it alone. Every leader has an opportunity now to find the cause and platform that is most relevant and matters most to them, and which allows for the most exponential impact. We urge leaders to find their burning platform and make it the beating heart of their business.

Elaine Weidman Grunewald, co-author of this article, is a global sustainability executive. She spent 20 years at Ericsson, where she was Chief Sustainability Officer. Grunewald is also a co-founder of the AI Sustainability Center, a world-leading center focused on the ethical and societal implications of AI and data-driven technologies. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Image credit of Black Lives Matter protest in Stockholm: Frankie Fouganthin/Wiki Commons

Henrik Henriksson headshot

Henrik Henriksson is the CEO of global sustainable transport company Scania, headquartered in Stockholm. He is also an advisor to the Swedish government and part of its Agenda 2030 delegation. Henriksson and Elaine Weidman Grunewald co-authored the new book, Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Your Industry and the World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

Read more stories by Henrik Henriksson