Why we need more Ray Andersons

Questioning Assumptions

Why we need more Ray Andersons

Editor's note: This article is the third part of a three-part series “Do we need the "S-word?" Read the previous parts here: Part One, Part Two.

An entirely separate article by Joel Makower, "Why Aren't There More Ray Andersons," is another great question, and received many fine comments, but is too important to leave siloed. Therefore, we can use it here for perspective on the first and overall question of this series: Do we need the "S-word?" The career of Ray Anderson, what people thought of him, and pondering why we're not getting more "Rays," even more clearly shows the answer to the big question is "Yes."

I've taken some of the views expressed in this article, by either Joel or people he quoted (if not further referenced below, that's where it's from); some direct comments on that article; and also some views by people to whom I sent the article. I used some of these ideas earlier in the series, but they are now cited by others specifically about what made Ray "Ray."

These lead to quite a picture, almost a table of contents for a contrarian CSO guidebook, and exacerbate the tragedy if, in a couple of years, we still can't identify not just another clear new "Ray" — but a league of them!

The characteristics people saw in Ray, which are also relevant to the "S" question, are not common ones. They mentioned his sense or possession of:

  • The degree of change needed: Joel said, "He was not an incrementalist;" Larry Furman from my network cited his "seeing of the bigger picture."
  • What's at stake: Leigh Baker mentioned his "realization we can destroy ecosystems."
  • Purpose: Joel mentioned his "missionary zeal." Janine Benyus said, "For their clients … buying Interface carpet was a way you could help … if you bought the carpet you would be part of something larger too."
  • Vision: Jim Hartzfeld, who worked for him, quoted him as saying, "My job (is) to go around the bend and see what's on the other side, what people can't see yet." Lindsay James said the next Ray will "reimagine business," "know a deeper level of truth that the rest of us are blind to," "sound a little crazy to the rest of us."
  • Dual qualities rarely cited together in one individual. Dawn Mazzone of my network spoke of his "having an open heart and open mind," of his stories "unfolding from the philosophic to the pragmatic."
  • Character: Larry cited courage, John Picard mentioned backbone, and Hunter Lovins spoke of vertebra.
  • Morality: Benyus said he "brought in a conscience."
  • Humility: Larry added this rarely seen or promoted quality.

Perhaps surprisingly, the most frequently cited quality of Ray was his willingness to learn, with Joel citing "his passion" for it, and "willingness to rethink everything." Benyus discussed his "bringing in (external) people," including "the crazies," who brought up "really hard things." Dawn spoke of his sense of "discovery." Contrast this quality to the often-cited need to "speak the language of business" emphasized in Part II.

Others went even further, using terms not often (favorably) mentioned in our world. Larry cited his "intellectualism," and Benyus his "scholarly side."

I suppose true leadership about sums it up — as distinguished from the management we usually get, sometimes disguised as the former. Business psychologist Douglass LaBier ties a number of these themes to sustainable leadership, saying it involves "learning relevant facts and [attaining an] evidence-based understanding about emerging global and workforce realities." He adds that it also includes [using] "both the head and the heart."

In conclusion, my overall surprisingly simple take on the "Why No More Rays" question, which in turn impacts on the larger "Why Sustainability" question, is because we're not expecting or demanding them. In sustainable business contexts unlike this one where we are specifically discussing it, we don't expect a "Ray" perspective from our conference panelists or fellow staffers. We don't respond to their points by asking, "What would Ray say?"

Nor are we questioning the conventional internal sequence Ray subtly inverted for generating and evaluating proposed projects: Start by coming up with a possible green-tinged method to save money or improve revenues, check whether the ROI is acceptable, and offer those that pass as evidence of a sustainability-accepting company. Instead, Ray began with a powerful leader-created (at least in his case), impossible-sounding vision (like No Pollution by 2020) and then doing those other steps (except going beyond the "tinged" level of greenness).

To the best of my knowledge, in our management surveys we're not taking advantage of the Ray-precedent to ask questions about what sustainability will take inside the company that reflect the above. So we're not going to see results about, say, deep learning or bringing in stakeholders with "crazy" views. Outside of the limited Ray context, such as when we heard him speak, we revert.

This is a particularly bad example for the young Green MBAs and mid-career shifters entering our midst. Perhaps a few of them, once better cued, could emerge as the next set of "Rays." A more intensive understanding and use of sustainability would help.

Summing up this entire series, it might help to remember there can be no climbing of Ray's famous "Mount Sustainability" without "Sustainability."