Why aren't there more Ray Andersons?

3. Missionary zeal. Anderson truly believed he had a mission: to influence a dirty industry — carpet manufacturing — and in the process, to influence all manufacturing.

“Ray thought sustainability was the best way he could sell carpet,” says Benyus. “I don’t think there was any doubt in anybody’s mind that Ray Anderson was selling carpet. What he found was a way to be the über-salesman for his company while transforming his industry.”

Benyus attributes some of this to Anderson’s Christian beliefs. “He was a religious guy — not overtly; he wasn’t a Bible-thumper, but he had strong moral convictions. This mission was part of his morality. It wasn’t just about selling carpet. It wasn’t just about transforming industry. I think it really was about redemption.”

Redemption came up several times in my conversations. Woven into Anderson’s story was his realization that he was, by virtue of his company’s activities, “a plunderer of the earth.” As he once put it:

For theft of our children’s future to be a crime, there must be a clear demonstrable alternative to the take-make-waste industrial system that so dominates our civilization. And industry is the major culprit, stealing our children’s future, by digging up the earth and converting it to products that quickly become waste in a landfill or an incinerator. In short, digging up the earth and converting it to pollution.

His reflections as plunderer and thief weren't just part of his shtick, says Benyus. “You were always waiting to scratch and find out that it was only skin deep, just a good story. It wasn’t. He really had this sort of guilt, and there was some sort of redemption going on with him doing what he was doing. He believed that selling more carpet was transforming industry, and he made you believe that.”

Calculated or not, it was ingenious. “In his mind, if Interface did well — i.e., sold carpet — it could continue to do its job of transforming the industry,” says Benyus. “For their clients, and I spent a lot of time with them, buying Interface carpet was a way you could help. You felt that he was part of something larger, and if you bought the carpet you would be part of something larger, too.”

Environmentalist and human rights activist Dianne Dillon-Ridgley, who sits on Interface's Board of Directors, talks about Anderson “spreading the gospel.” “There was a spiritual component to Ray,” says Dillon-Ridgley, who also served on the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, established in the mid 1990s by President Clinton, which Anderson co-chaired. She refers to “Tomorrow’s Child,” the poem written by an Interface employee inspired by Anderson’s vision, which Anderson used to close many of his countless public speeches. “‘Tomorrow's Child’ was such a concrete guide," says Dillon-Ridgley, "not just his personal grandchildren, which is more about legacy and inheritance and not uncommon, but a real bond, a personal connection and obligation to the future.”

I believe it was that missionary zeal that led many of his friends, colleagues, and employees to speak of him in spiritual, almost religious tones.

“I think of Ray’s legacy like that of the first cells to photosynthesize,” says Lindsay James, Interface’s Director of Strategic Sustainability, “the first cells that tapped into the abundant energy of the sun to create chemical energy and the oxygen-rich atmosphere that we depend on today. Like photosynthesis, Ray’s leadership changed everything, redefining the game itself, creating an entire new world of possibilities and pathways that previously were unknowable.”

Not many people speak of their boss like this.

4. Conviction — and control. Ray Anderson stuck to his guns, sometimes at considerable risk to his company. Recalls Picard: “You have no idea how many times Ray would look at me and say, ‘Buddy, I hope we’re doing the right thing. What if this doesn’t work? We can take the company over the edge.’ And yet he wouldn’t waver. He said, ‘We have to go in this direction.’ I would watch these huge new issues arise. At first he was pissed and didn’t want to deal with it and was almost in denial. And all of a sudden he grabbed it and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do. We’ve got to find a way to deal with it.’”

Several people talked about how intensely Anderson controlled his world. “This was a guy with an absolute iron fist,” says Benyus. “He did not suffer fools gladly. He had one of those leadership styles that was really low-key, but which was simmering. People wanted to please him. It wasn’t that he was a pushover or trying to be everyone’s best friend. He wasn’t a softie.”

Some of his displeasure was aimed at his counterparts and colleagues at other companies. “He was frustrated many times over the years when he would try to influence other CEOs,” recalls Hartzfeld. “I remember one meeting in particular — an annual meeting of CEOs, who came and sat in the front of the room; all the minions and the delegates were sitting in the back. Ray got up in the meeting and went and sat with the guys in the back. He said, ‘This is where the action's going on. I'm wasting my time up there.’”

Says Dillon-Ridgley: “He was startled at the levels of resistance, stunned but ever more resolved of the rightness and necessity of his mission.”

Next page: The willingness to rethink everything