The Elkington Report

It's not easy being a (green) thought leader

Maybe I dreamed it, but I recall reading that disgraced Uber ex-CEO Travis Kalanick has been taking advice from a New York firm on how to become a thought leader, to ease his route back to the top of the world’s most successful app company.

True or not, the news had me thinking about the strange business of thought leadership at a time when it often seems that every second business leader also wants to be seen as one.

On the upside, this suggests that our agenda is mainstreaming at an accelerating rate. But, on the downside, we run the risk of the whole thing blowing away in a flurry of poorly rooted vanity projects.

So what sort of thought leadership is needed as we push into this brave new century of ours? Before trying to answer, let me briefly reflect on what set me — decades ago — on the path to a form of thought leadership.

I never set out to be a thought leader, despite having been described as such. Instead, I started to write for magazines such as New Scientist (from 1975) and newspapers such as The Guardian (from 1978) about what interested me. And while that started out being issues such as the destruction of the world’s wetlands and the processes of desertification, I quickly zeroed in on in the role of business — not just in causing problems but also in developing solutions.

I went on to co-found four companies, including Environmental Data Services (ENDS), SustainAbility and now Volans, visiting several hundred companies around the world — and working for an A-through-Z listing of global brands.

In the process, I coined a number of memes, wrote 19 books and served on over 70 boards and advisory boards. Anyone looking in would have thought I knew exactly what I was doing, but it rarely felt like that. Getting to the triple bottom line, for example, took a couple of years.

Now I find myself in another of those extended gestation periods, with something or other struggling to be born. It feels exciting and unsettling in equal measure, and with no guarantee that the results will have been worth the effort and wait.

How reassuring to read, back in 2006, that my messy approach to innovation was one of two key approaches. I came across an article in Wired by Daniel Pink about University of Chicago economist David Galenson — and it had a transformative impact on my thinking about creativity.

Once Galenson had come up with the idea, he elaborated it in a couple of books, "Painting Outside the Lines: Patterns of Creativity in Modern Art" (2002) and "Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity" (2006).

A tale of two cubists

Painters Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne helped Galenson define either end of his spectrum of innovation.

Picasso, on the one hand, was a conceptual innovator, launching a revolutionary new style, Cubism. As Pink explained:

His "Demoiselles d’Avignon," regarded by critics as the most important painting of the past 100 years, appears in more art history textbooks than any other 20th-century piece. Picasso completed Demoiselles when he was 26. He lived into his nineties and produced many other well-known works, of course, but Galenson’s analysis shows that of all the Picassos that appear in textbooks, nearly 40 percent are those he completed before he turned 30.

Cézanne, on the other hand, was an experimental innovator:

He progressed in fits and starts. Working endlessly to perfect his technique, he moved slowly toward a goal that he never fully understood. As a result, he bloomed late. The highest-priced Cézannes are paintings he made in the year he died, at age 67. Cézanne is well represented in art history textbooks; he’s the third-most-illustrated French artist of the 20th century. But of all his reproduced images, just 2 percent are from his twenties. Sixty percent were completed after he turned 50, and he painted more than one-third during his sixties.

These are two radically different approaches to creation. Conceptualists generally know what they want — and know when they’ve created it. "Cézanne was different. He rarely preconceived a work. He figured out what he was painting by actually painting it. Experimentalists never know when their work is finished."

Even non-geniuses can take comfort from the fact that some greats often feel that they are stumbling around in the dark. And the same patterns Galenson identified in painting also turned up in fields such as architecture (Maya Lin vs. Frank Lloyd Wright), music composition (Mozart vs. Beethoven) and film-making (Orson Welles vs. Alfred Hitchcock).

In the world of opportunity sketched by the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accord, we will need both conceptual and experimental approaches to innovation and, yes, to thought leadership.

But while it is tempting to dismiss the efforts of disgraced leaders to wrap themselves in the camouflage of social concern, we also need a third type of thought leadership, where well-briefed CEOs, investors and policy-makers help the wider world catch up by articulating the change agenda in ways that make business, financial and political sense.

Whatever their personal motivations, these are the people who have driven the leadership spotlighted in the GlobeScan/SustainAbility surveys of "sustainability leaders" over the past 20 years.

Whether understanding comes in blinding flashes (such as Interface founder Ray Anderson’s "spear in the chest" epiphany) or through ceaseless experiment, as with Thomas Edison, our challenge is to find more of these people and to link them in ways that help them build critical mass for change.

In the process, tomorrow’s leaders will need to expand their palettes of change solutions and tackle progressively larger canvases.

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