Within an organisation, personal leadership from the CEO on the sustainability agenda is usually critical to transformational change. But what if there isn’t a visionary CEO? Is it possible to transition towards a sustainable business?
An important question, particularly given that CEOs with a passion for sustainability, and a willingness to change their organisation and the wider business community, are in short supply. CEOs with a pioneering approach to sustainability remain a very small percentage of the total number at the helm of the thousands of listed businesses on stock markets around the world. Go on, try it – make a mental list of the CEOs such as Paul Polman and Ian Cheshire who are flying the flag for sustainability (give yourself a prize if you get to more than ten).
So, what can you do in your business if your CEO is ambivalent at best, or completely opposed at worst, to the sustainability agenda? Or, if you have a slightly interested CEO, but the marzipan layer – the middle to senior managers who oil the cogs of the business’s machinery – just don’t ‘get it’. Despair? No, not at all.
Enter what I would describe as ‘quiet leadership’, personal leadership from within an organisation, which is effective at pushing the sustainability agenda forward, despite the absence of top level support. From working with businesses on sustainability since the early days when leadership equated to a nice glossy CR report, I think there are at least four different approaches to quiet leadership which capture the tactics and actions taken by individuals which have proved successful.
There are probably many more ways in which individuals in organisations can create the change they want to see, even without a charismatic CEO at the top of the organisation or with a very deep yellow and sticky marzipan layer. Within the four approaches above, the individuals share common characteristics – personal conviction, passion, imagination, the ability to influence, and persistence. And of course, ultimate success might rely on deploying all four approaches, either simultaneously or in succession.
My observations of quiet leadership only go to prove that the American anthropologist Margaret Mead was right when she said "never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has". The sustainability challenges we currently face are so immediate, so pressing, that we can’t afford to wait for every business to find a visionary CEO with a passion for sustainability. It’s down to all of us to find ways of creating change now - quiet leadership might offer a few pointers on how.