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The Inside View

The 8 attributes of successful sustainability leaders

It's not just the "what" of sustainability that's important. It's the "how."

I’m back from a break to continue my column. My leave allowed me to finish my book, The Battle to Do Good: Inside McDonald’s Sustainability Journey (Emerald Publishing, due to publish in January). Not until now, as I completed the last edits of the book, did I realize the overriding importance of the art of "how" leaders make change happen.

That’s why I plan to feature interviews with today’s sustainability leaders that probe the "how" of sustainability. Sure, the "what" is important, but I’ve seen a lot of great "what" ideas go nowhere. It’s how you get the "what" done that matters most.

I was fortunate to see firsthand how courageous trailblazers used all different leadership styles to produce significant positive, sometimes transformational changes.
I’ve observed many terrific leaders in my 30-year sustainability career. I was fortunate to see firsthand how courageous trailblazers used all different leadership styles to produce significant positive, sometimes transformational changes — from inside McDonald’s and its suppliers, external NGOs, academic and corporate partners. For example, I start the book the story of how Fred Krupp broke ranks with his environmental peers to establish the breakthrough waste reduction partnership with McDonald’s.

The book ends with the current head of McDonald’s supply chain and CSO, Francesca DeBiase, along with Jason Clay from the World Wildlife Fund and Cameron Bruett of JBS, all collaborating and championing the new horizon of sustainable beef.

As I reflected on the attributes of the couple of dozen people featured in my book, I observed eight common attributes:

Courage: Accept and relish the fact that leadership in sustainability means changing something that will meet resistance, and that you need strength to face the grief that is to come.

Conviction: Leading a sustainability change is not for the weak-kneed. Conviction — really having a firmly held belief — is required as the contagious springbroad to bring others along.

Cleverness: By this, I mean the positive quality of being clever, ingenious and innovative. Sustainability solutions most often need a new way and approach.

Contrariness: Because sustainability means a change from the status quo, being a contrarian is a positive attribute. As Woodrow Wilson once said, "If you want to make enemies, try to change something."

It’s ironic that while it takes a lot of courage, conviction, cleverness and contrariness to battle to make sustainable change, a really good leader knows how to do so and still attract others to the mission or cause.

Collaboration: Even though sustainability leaders have conviction and more, they need to possess the strength to listen and be open to change and adaptation.

Cheerfulness: Despite the serious nature of sustainability issues, good cheer goes a long way. Having an overt optimism is the best magnet to build support.

Charisma: This does not necessarily mean a slap-on-the-back, magnetic personality, because there’s no one personality profile that dominates. What good leaders share is the ability to attract attention and admiration in order to gain trust. To me, this adds up to the art of influencing others, the most critical ingredient for sustainability leadership.

Humility: Most of those I interviewed were uncomfortable being the center of focus in the various stories I share in the book. When they read the draft chapters, they told me to make them less the center of attention. After all, they said, it is a broad team and set of stakeholders that forge change — not any one person. This humility comes from strength, not weakness. These leaders do what they do because of their passion to do what is good for society and business. They have no interest in taking credit or doing any sort of grandstanding.

Starting with my next column, I will interview today’s sustainability leaders, who will humbly share their own story of forging a specific change in their company. What attributes do they have in common with my list? And what new ones do they bring to the table?

I hope you will enjoy and learn from them.

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