Why aren't there more Ray Andersons?

Ray Anderson may be a difficult act to follow, but it's not unreasonable that, after all these years, others would be following in his footsteps, bringing their own unique mix of personality, passion, and pragmatism to the table. But the field of contestants is limited, and often fleeting. Says Benyus: "You had Jeff Immelt jump up there for a minute. You had Lee Scott jump up there for a minute. A few others." But none of them has endured as a sustainability leader — or has aspired to. The names proffered by those I queried represented slim pickings.

"I really believe that there are not many people in the world that would take the risk that Ray took with his whole company, and I think that’s one of the reasons why there aren’t other Ray Andersons," John Picard told me. "Ray made it look easy and acted like no matter what was going on it was going to be okay. So, as I’m talking to you, I’m getting angry because I just don’t see anybody with a backbone. I don’t see anybody with the willingness to give it all up and paddle out and take off on this giant wave and reap the rewards and go for a really long ride and have a view over the island."

One name did come up repeatedly: Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever. For at least the past two years — since launching his company's Sustainable Living Plan in 2010 — Polman has been presenting a bold sustainability vision for his company, one that at times rails against the status quo.

"He may be on track to surpass Ray," says Jeffrey Hollender, the co-founder of Seventh Generation, now a speaker, activist, and consultant. "Unilever's focus on accepting that the way their consumers use their products is part of its sustainability footprint, and that to reduce their negative impact they have to change consumer behavior, is revolutionary."

Hunter Lovins, president and founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions, has been watching Polman's ascent with relish. "Polman rejects Wall Street's fixation on optimizing short-term profits at the cost of a livable environment, stating, 'Our new business model will decouple growth from environmental impact. We will double in size, but reduce our overall effect on the environment.'" She cites Polman's announcement last October to stop giving quarterly reports to Wall Street, never mind his acknowledgment that Occupy Wall Street is playing a positive role by exposing the inequalities in society.

It is unclear whether Polman — whose career at Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever puts him squarely in the middle of global consumerism — can rise to Anderson's rockstar status, or even aspires to do so. Lovins and many others will be rooting him on and giving him air cover — not to mention terrific word of mouth. Replace Anderson's southern drawl with Polman's Dutch accent and you just might have the next sustainable business star.

The bigger question is why Polman seemingly stands alone, with few other clear runners-up. And that's where answers to my question become even scarcer. The truth is, no one could truly tell me why there aren't more "Ray Andersons."

Oh, people tried. They explained the barriers. (Jeffrey Hollender: "Big egos, greed, the desire to make more money than they know what to do with, absence of a strong sense of ethics that transcend what is merely legal; and inadequate peer set to lead the way, share knowledge and reduce the fear of trying new things.") They explained what it will take to create more "Rays." (Hunter Lovins: "Shareholder activism, Occupy and all forms of citizen activism. But more, it will take us making Paul Polman a success. I am now telling everyone to buy Unilever. Ultimately it will take customers rewarding courage to change elicit more vertebrates in the C-Suite.")

And they're probably right.

But the reality is that in today's corporate world Ray Andersons are likely to remain few and far between.

There is a ray of hope. Anderson left behind a vision of what sustainable leadership looks like, along with the notion that tomorrow's business leaders must think every day about "Tomorrow's Child." I loved the way Lindsay James' described to me what she, one of tomorrow's leaders, is looking for in the next "Ray":

She (or he) will be the one that completely re-imagines business, its role in our world and its potential. Like Ray, she will know a deeper level of truth that the rest of us are blind to, and she will articulate that truth in a compelling way until we can see it, too. In other words, like Ray, she will question the most basic assumptions that drive our complex systems. She’ll be the one that sounds a little crazy to the rest of us, the one that’s gone ‘round the bend and understood what the future holds, and can map that back to what is needed today.

Ray Anderson probably couldn't have said it better himself.