In Praise of Leadership

26 Apr 2012Rob Cameron

SustainAbility is now in its 25th year and as part of its celebrations launched The Regeneration Roadmap – a look backwards and forwards by some of the brightest folk from the frontline at the successes, failures, hits and misses of 25 years of “sustainability thinking”. From where I stand the glass could be half full or half empty, but what’s more important is “what’s next”? Are we making progress at the rate we need to? How can we accelerate? It’s not that we don’t have the ideas and we certainly have many technologies. It seems to me that the single most important missing ingredient has been leadership.

In the past four years or so, working in Fairtrade, I have had the incredible opportunity to see first hand the impacts of economic injustice for myself. The everyday realities for those that grow and harvest products that are everyday to us are a stark reminder to me that “development” is (almost) as important a word as “sustainable”. I don’t buy the notion that every single one of the 5 billion that has less wants the same as the 1 billion that are presently living unsustainably. But they expect, need and want a better deal than they have had to date. Indeed, as a coffee farmer in Nicaragua pointed out to me in August last year, when coffee prices were high back in the 1990s he could buy four bags of good rice with one bag of coffee. In August 2011, with coffee prices at an historic high he could buy just two bags of quality rice with one bag of coffee.

Many businesses have seen Fairtrade as a cost and sought the business case. What has been most interesting for me though is firstly, how few corporate leaders really understand their supply chains, and second what happens when they see the reality for themselves. For example, when Justin King of Sainsbury’s and Todd Stitzer when at Cadbury saw the reality of banana and cocoa production, they took a leadership stance in their industries and “made it so”, committing their companies to making something work that by traditional business thinking could easily fail. But they made their decisions not wholly on moral grounds (important though that was), but because they could see that current practice was simply not sustainable. In other words, they made a voluntary decision today, based on a belief of how things will be in the future. They made the future the cause of the present. And it is precisely this type of leadership that we need so much more of in the field of sustainable development. This is echoed in the messages coming from the pioneers in The Regeneration Roadmap who believe that leadership on the sustainability agenda will require the vision to make decisions with the next 50 or 100 years in mind.

In our search for leaders we should look beyond our own shores to the developing world where there are legions of examples of leadership and sustainability thinking. In Brazil, Peru, India and Ghana to name but a few, I have met men and women that have been prepared to step forward and serve their communities, guiding a pathway towards sustainable progress. Sometimes, these are pathways are out of disaster – financial or agricultural – and all are characterized by limited resources, steady, step wise progress, and committed leadership that is based on creating a better future not simply managing the present. Every one would serve as an instructive business case for us in the developed world.

New to SustainAbility I am eager to develop my own understanding of what it takes to be a better leader and to put it into practice, and also to using my best endeavours to supporting business leaders and equip them with the tools needed to stand out and make the future the cause of the present.

This article originally appeared on 2degrees website.

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