June 24, 2020
Sustainable Leadership for a Sustainable World
The United Nations Global Compact last week marked 20 years of uniting business for a better world. It celebrated by hosting its Leaders Summit, where it brought together about 18,000 business professionals for its bi-annual event, which was held virtually this year due to COVID-19.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres framed the call to action for business in this moment as moving from do no harm, business-as-usual approaches to operating, to embracing elevated expectations, and addressing environmental, social and governance risks.
This has been at the heart of LRN’s partnership with UNGC the past 10 years. A new report on business leaders to take more ambitions action on the Sustainable Development Goals.
LRN’s David Greenberg, who has more than 40 years of experience at the intersection of business and society, shares some of his experiences and his vision for the kind of leadership that is needed most in this moment.
What does society now expect from business?
If there is one thing that has been a throughline in my career, it is the relationship between business and society, and that business has an obligation to serve the needs of society. I started my career as a young lawyer in the largest consumer lobbying group in Washington, D.C., then became a partner at a law firm, then responsible for leading a conversation at Altria that at its center was about answering a difficult question: Can there be a productive relationship between a maker of tobacco and the world, and what does society expect from a responsible maker of this product?
Now I’m leading LRN, where we are in the business of elevating behavior and ensuring principles and values and a deep connection to societal needs, and purpose is at the center of business and business decision-making.
Is there an archetype for the kind of leader who embraces the idea that business and society are inextricably linked?
Leaders who embrace their organization’s connection to society as more than giving back, who have both broad and deep relationships with the world around them, will be the most successful and sustainable over the long haul. The hard part is ensuring you have a clear understanding of purpose: Why it is that a company exists and what it does for good of world?
If a leader can’t define what their company does that is good of world, they are in trouble from the beginning. If you are making paper clips, you’d better be thinking about your purpose as ‘how we hold things together.” Everything should be viewed through that lens. As my own career moved forward, I had every compensation bell and whistle that existed. There was a point where that had little to do why I got up in the morning. The company has to provide inspirational purpose and work that makes the difference between mailing it in and being inspired to change the world.
Can you capture a leader’s capacity to think in this way?
One way of capturing the work leaders need to do is asking if leaders have an outside-in or inside-out mindset. If you are inside-out you are much more likely to get things wrong; if you are outside-in, you are more likely to get things right. Does leadership have a comprehensive view of world? Does leadership understand how the organization fits into the world and does that perspective influence everything they do? Society should be a leading indicator and not a lagging one. The more you are hearing from people who question or challenge you, the better.
How can leaders help to take this mindset inside of their companies?
If a program isn’t a fulcrum to put something into the machine of the business, then that program will die on the vine. Leaders should be thinking about how to use programs to build outlook, experience, and skills into the business. If ethics and compliance isn’t a core consideration in everything a business does, it will have limited, real-world impact, and won’t be scalable.
What are some of the biggest mistakes companies make in this regard?
It was Copernicus who put forth the theory the sun is at rest near the center of the universe. Where leaders get things wrong is when they see their company at the center versus seeing it as a small part of the universe. This is the change in leadership mindsets I am most inspired by in my conversations with business leaders at LRN.
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