Is a 'womanly' business a more sustainable one?

The Living Future unConference, held earlier this month in Portland, Oregon, although ostensibly a green building conference, featured "Women Reshaping the World" as this year's theme. If you're not familiar with Living Future, their choice of theme would be your first clue that this is not your father's green building conference.

Numerous speakers, including Indian activist and luminary Dr. Vandana Shiva, promoted the idea that emphasizing traditionally female virtues and values is key to creating the living future envisioned by the conference's participants. Don't worry, men have not been dis-invited from the revolution, but it seems the days of women needing to act more like men to become leaders are coming to an end. Dr. Shiva shared that Gandhi, one of the great men of history, prayed daily to become "more womanly."

As a man and a long-time environmental advocate, I find this line of thinking challenging and irresistibly provocative. Could cultivating "womanly" virtues -- such as collaboration, empathy, and creativity -- in our male leaders, while creating space for more female leadership, make businesses more sustainable?

As a 30-something native Californian who grew up a family best described as a matriarchy, I am perhaps more comfortable than many men in the company of powerful women leaders and in embracing my own "womanly" virtues. Interface founder Ray Anderson shared neither my alternative upbringing nor my home state, but he began to recognize later in life the vital role that women leaders would have to play in transitioning to a sustainable society, noting that male-dominated industries and their style of thinking got us into the current mess. As Einstein put it, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."

So, I would ask my fellow men of green business, shall we take it on faith (in Gandhi, Einstein, and Ray Anderson, if you like) that making your company "more womanly" is the path to sustained success? Or would a bit of data help this go down easier?

We have very solid evidence from the McKinsey and Catalyst studies that Fortune 500 companies with three or more women on their Boards have substantially better financial returns (including 60 percent greater return on invested capital [PDF]). So there is definitely something to this on the financial side.

On the sustainability side, we'll have to speculate a bit more. Historically, there are numerous key female leaders who have revolutionized sustainability, from Rachel Carson to Janine Benyus. But I find it even more interesting to look at the disproportionate number of women leading sustainability initiatives within their companies.

For example, the group known as Sustainable Design Leaders, made up of the leading sustainability experts from major US architecture and design firms, is over 50 percent women, while the number of women principals at these firms is less than 20 percent.

At Interface, most of our C-level executives are men; however, our top sustainability executive is a woman and I am the only man on the four-person sustainability team that contributes to this column. At the top, we have two women on our Board (so close to the magic three) and more than a few "womanly" leaders among our male executives (I won't name names, and, for the record, they prefer the term "servant leaders").

But what does this intentionally provocative word I've borrowed and these "feminine" virtues and aptitudes mean in the modern context of sustainable business leadership? And might we find a less polarizing way to talk about them?