When Executives Speak Out

A fair number of prominent business people have taken leadership positions on issues of sustainability and societal responsibility. Of course there are the examples we know and love to quote: Paul Polman of Unilever, Ian Cheshire of Kingfisher and Jochen Zeitz of Puma.

But what about when the pronouncements are more controversial?  I will never forget  the audible intake of breath at the BSR conference in San Francisco in 2010.   Aron Cramer was interviewing Zhang Yue, a prominent CEO from China running an energy efficiency business and displaying impeccable employee/human rights credentials. Taking everyone off guard he proclaimed that of course, he immediately fires anyone who has more than one child, because population growth is bad for sustainability.  How shocking to our Western sensibilities.

And the recent visit of Eric Schmidt of Google to North Korea. It does seem like a risky step for a CEO to step beyond government policy in the field of foreign relations and indeed, the US government was not happy.  But human rights activists seemed quietly supportive.  Most recently, John Mackey of Whole Foods criticised the government’s healthcare plans; this was in addition to earlier comments that climate change is “perfectly natural and not necessarily bad.”

So what are the boundaries of executive leadership in sustainability and corporate responsibility?  We want to see leadership, but business executives are not democratically elected so it is not their role to set social policy. Just because you are a good business person does it make you an expert on public policy?

What we should look for from our corporate executives is leadership on sustainability issues that are material to the business, pushing the envelope with regard to delivering long term success, even at the expense of the short term.

The most courageous executive is one who speaks up when the best interests of the business do not serve the best interests of society or the environment and takes action to move the business to a better place.

And, if sometimes we don’t agree with their position, that’s the way of the world.  We cannot have our cake and eat it.

I have written previously on this topic here


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