I normally spend the first week of February in Phoenix with hundreds of sustainability leaders for our largest industry conference, GreenBiz. This year, GreenBiz was online. At some level, it feels appropriate that industry leaders dedicated to reducing carbon emissions stayed put, foregoing flights, Lyft rides and rental cars, and banquet tables of food. But the biggest upside of virtual was the killer line-up of keynotes from CEOs like Bill Gates, Paul Polman, Sonny Verghese, and Andrea Alvares to the leaders of the UN Global Compact and the WBCSD. Getting their collective perspective on the events of 2020 and the implications for what we need to accomplish by 2030 was inspiring, educational, and at times sobering.
The line that stood out to me came from Former CEO of Unilever Paul Polman: “We are short on leaders and trees.”
The need for trees is obvious. We have lost nearly 420 million hectares since 1990, primarily in Africa and South America. That’s equal to 1.6 million square miles—almost half of the USA. Tree loss affects biodiversity tremendously, but also reduces our ability to take carbon out of the atmosphere. Hence the popular if not exactly perfect idea that we need to plant 1 trillion trees to help reverse climate change that even President Trump supported.
The lack of leaders is less obvious. Polman pointed out—despite growing attention to the climate crisis, the UN SDGs, and ESG investors—the number of companies with science-based targets remains relatively low. Bold commitments are rare. Rapid turnover and short-term mindsets still prevail in decision-making and boards. His point is, essentially, today’s business leaders don’t generally have what it takes to navigate through this level of complexity. He said, “The door is open for new leadership to come to the table—or take the table.”
What do these new leaders need? It’s not, in his opinion, what the MBA programs teach. I didn’t hear the words finance, strategy, or brand management once. Systems thinking was first on his list. After that? It was more the how than the what: purpose-driven, collaborative, humane, intergenerational, courageous, humble, and service-orientated.
The other related call-to-action that resonated was from CEO of Olam International Sonny Verghese. He pointed out that we have all the international frameworks and targets that we need—from the Paris Agreement, to the UN SDGs, to the Convention on Biodiversity, What we don’t have enough of is individual action. We each need to own what we can do in our own spheres of influence to deliver against those targets, whether we are head of household, a small business, a large business (or a team inside one), a not-for-profit, or a government organization.
As someone who has spent ten years trying to inspire individuals and organizations to take action, I know this call is not easy. The intent is there. Most people want to do something to be healthier, more sustainable, more inclusive, more supportive of their community. But change is hard.
When have I seen it work most effectively? When three things come together. The first is when leadership says it matters and there are targets, goals, scorecards, and regular progress updates. The second is a blueprint for what actions count and a roadmap for where to focus. The third is when others join you on this journey and cheer you on, share success stories, and highlight best practices.
But if I had to pick the thing that matters most? It is courage. To be the person willing to challenge the status quo. To be the voice of urgency that says we need to change. To be the one who shows people through their own actions that there is a better way to live and work. That is what ultimately I wish for each of you this year and this decade—to be the courageous person the world needs you to be.