Why aren't there more Ray Andersons?

5. The willingness to rethink everything. Today, companies are embracing innovation in new ways, looking outside their walls for ideas and engaging in open innovation that entangles them in new kinds of partnerships with a wide range of external players. That wasn't the case in the 1990s, when Anderson created his Eco Dream Team — a dozen or so big brains he brought together or consulted from time to time. They included Benyus, Dillon-Ridgley, Hawken and Picard, along with Rocky Mountain Institute co-founders Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins; architect and designer William McDonough; the writer Daniel Quinn, whose 1992 philosophical novel Ishmael was often cited by Anderson; green building architect Robert Fox; Forum for the Future founder Jonathan Porritt, and others.

It was, by any measure, an extraordinary group of outspoken mavericks and visionaries.

“Who asks for that kind of input?” says Benyus. “Everyone talks about open-source innovation. Most companies bring in McKinsey. He brought in Daniel Quinn. I think he brought in soul advice — the technical advice could have come from someone else. He brought in a conscience. He didn’t bring in yes people — he brought in the crazies, the court jesters who would tell the truth. Everyone else in the room was squirming, because we brought up really hard things.”

It was Anderson's willingness to listen and weigh what the "crazies" had to say that informed much of his vision and big ideas.

6. Relentless storytelling. Anderson would speak to just about any group that invited him. I’ve seen a range of estimates of the number of speeches he gave in the 15 or so years between his sustainability epiphany and his cancer diagnosis. Whatever the number, it was prodigious — an average of more than one a week for well over a decade. “He could have just stayed at home and done what he did, and had his PR people publicize it,” says Benyus. But he chose not to.

Anderson was a master storyteller, and seemed to revel in that role. But it was the personal nature of the story that provided much of the magic: his “plunderer” realization and the resulting ascent he led his company up what he called Mount Sustainability, with its seven faces (eventually, there was an eighth), each of which was a compelling journey unto itself: The challenges they faced on their "ascent," and his resolve to push forward. And how those journeys led to innovation breakthroughs, cost savings, a better company, and a better world.

“You’d watch the audience in the first few rows — they were starstruck,” says Picard. “Ray focused on the Interface story constantly in a way that he just stayed on message — a very, very clear message.”

The message unfolded, from the philosophical to the pragmatic. “Ray always led with the big like humanistic ‘Why's,’” says Hartzfeld. “That we need to do this — why? And then he would talk about how we did things, and eventually he'd get down to the specifics of what we did. Leading with these big beliefs, these big ‘Why’ kinds of questions drew people to him.”

It wasn’t just in speeches. Anderson told stories to everyone he met who would listen. And he never strayed too far from business fundamentals. Says Hartzfeld: “He’d tell how we we're reducing waste and using renewable energy and recycling, and at the end he’d say, ‘We make carpet. Would you like to buy some?’ And people would just say, ‘Yes. What do you got?’”

Call it the alchemy of product and passion. Call it cynical hucksterism. Call it clever marketing. Call it whatever you like. You can’t deny that the stories were good — and effective.

Next page: So, who's the next Ray?