Environmental Leaders: Please Step forward!

Attention, environmental leaders! You know who I mean—those of you who are professionals on environmental issues and have been for years. Take a stand and don’t allow amateurs to lead the debate on significant environmental issues or strategy. Concerned about gasoline prices, energy costs, and a fragile economy? This is the result of leadership not stepping forward. Leadership is paramount for the six billion of us living on our planet. Why is there a dearth in leadership? Perhaps it is difficult to define leadership in an actionable way.

“Leadership is taking people where they would not ordinarily go by themselves,” says Joel Barker, de-scribing the role of a leader. Space travel, penicillin, the wheel—someone took the leadership role since none of these is intuitive. Today, corporations recycle, purchase green, reduce energy, follow regulations and basically strive to be good environmental citizens. However, this is not leadership because today most corporate citizens will go there by themselves. Same is true for the government sector.

Leadership, taking people where they will not intuitively go, encompasses certain elements—elements such as courage, integrity, defining the correct question, vision for a legacy, and expecting ambiguity. Let’s examine some of these elements needed for environmental leadership. Courage—check. Integrity—check. If I need to explain these in 2008, your company will join the ranks of Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, HealthSouth, Adelphia Communications, and many dishonest politicians. However, there are other elements essential for leadership and sustainability in organizations. Some organizations just get it! If your organization believes in environmental management systems, has a compensation system directly related to environmental goals, and an involved CEO, your company will be a sustainable organization. More than likely, sustainable companies have leadership elements inculcated within their structure. On the other hand, some organizations don’t have a clue! Indulge me as I explain a few more of the leadership elements needed for sustainability.

Defining the correct question is a paramount business proposition. Solutions are easy, but leadership requires defining and asking the correct question. CEOs depend on environmental leaders to ask the sustainable questions and not the doable questions. A doable business question generates a product with the minimum of environmental guidelines or leadership. The sustainable business question or proposition generates a product with the very best environmental guidelines and leadership. The issue of global climate change has many agendas so asking the correct question is paramount. Businesses are altering their strategies based on climate change so defining the correct question drives the business.

Leaders need vision, but the correct question is what type of vision—one that ensures a legacy or one that merely demonstrates activity. Having a vision for a legacy underscores leadership versus having a vision for an activity. The “vision for a legacy” proposition encompasses leaving no environmental footprint, and yet your company’s reputation is that of the most environmentally responsible and most profitable company in the world. A vision for an activity simply involves a checklist of environmental activities with little intellectual thought concerning the future or sustainability. A prime example of a vision for a legacy is the design of an automobile. The next time an automobile is designed, have the exhaust blow into the car cabin instead of outside into the air. Do you think this changes the vision to that of a legacy for the automotive industry?

Environmental Leaders
Another element for leaders to consider is ambiguity. As a leader, have you ever been assigned a job with no people, no budget, no rules and yet expected high results? Talk about ambiguity! Leaders need to accept and manage ambiguity, multiple interpretation, and lack of clarity. Organizations have evolved from being organized to ambiguous to chaotic to paradoxical to dysfunctional. Someone somewhere needs to take the leadership role and turn dysfunctionality into a plan.

During the 1970s, industry studied three environmental issues: 1) Global freezing; 2) Water; 3) Energy policy for the U.S. As the ’80s/’90s approached, industry studied three issues: 1) Global warming; 2) Water; 3) Energy policy for the U.S. I venture to say that 25 years from now the topics being studied will be: 1) Global freezing; 2) Water; 3) Energy policy for the U.S. Corporate leaders, government leaders and citizens need to wake up! Solutions cannot be found without participation. Decisions are made by the people who show up. People will follow a leader. The problem is we have too few leaders to follow.

Jack Giampalmi is president of Management Research & Consulting. He is a business environmentalist and former executive with a global Fortune 50 company and a premier nonprofit organization. He has given numerous speeches and seminars around the world. Additionally, he has written many articles and has several patents on innovative chemical processes. For comments, questions or speaking inquiries, please contact him at [email protected]

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