One pivitol moment of enlightenment can cause corporate leaders to change direction.
Moments of revelation trigger the biggest transformations
by Jo Confino
November 20th, 2012
Jo Confino discovers that it is often an 'inner journey' that lies behind many business leaders finding their sustainability voice, and argues that it's time to better foster the conditions in which this can happen.
epiphanies do not have to have a spiritual overtone and often are triggered by something very ordinary.
All the science in all the world will not have the same impact without that one moment of revelation.
There is constant questioning in sustainability circles about why the very clear data on our parasitic impacts on Mother Earth is not leading to a drastic change in our behaviour.
But if you delve into the triggers for transformation among business leaders, it is often an epiphany rather than greater knowledge that leads to the raising of consciousness as well as concrete action.
Part of the reason for this is that the experience is often so deep that it momentarily knocks the ego out of the way; what shines through is a sense of knowing in which ambivalence has no shelter.
In this place, the relentless drive of short-term profits at the expense of the long-term health of the planet and the wellbeing of humanity shows itself to be hollow at best.
This is in no way to deride the importance of science and knowledge, both of which are absolutely critical in building a foundation for change. But intellectual awareness does not necessarily lead to courageous action.
I was speaking the other day to Sir Brian Hoskins, director of the respected Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London, who recognises that scientific knowledge in isolation from inspiration is not going to bring the scale of change that is needed in the world.
Hoskins, one of the UK's most respected climate scientists, said of "that moment of epiphany": "Often what we do is provide the landscape in which St Paul can have his moment. I don't believe these come from nowhere; they come from all the information around and then it clicks for someone. We are creating the ether in which people can have that illumination."
The reason we don't often hear about these Damascene moments in the business world is because they fall outside of what is considered to be the acceptable lexicon. It's just not the sort of thing you discuss around the water cooler. They also tend to be highly personal and also difficult to describe in a way that does not demean them.
My own move, more than a decade ago, into the world of business and sustainability – both as a journalist and practitioner – was inspired by a moment of illumination, but I am careful with whom I discuss this.
One of the reasons I have personal respect for Jochen Zeitz, the chairman of Puma, is because he is prepared to talk about how his experience in a Benedictine monastery inspired his campaign for businesses to value nature through the creation of environmental profit and loss accounting.
Of course, epiphanies do not have to have a spiritual overtone and often are triggered by something very ordinary. Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, told me recently that his inspiration came from looking into his childrens' eyes and recognising he would be failing them if he did not do all he could to ensure their future wellbeing.
The importance of inner experience
Someone who has been exploring this territory is Lynda Grattan, professor of management practice at the London Business School and chair of the World Economics Forum on leadership. She has been carrying out in-depth research into 60 companies and almost invariably finds their sustainability programmes have developed as a result of an individual's inner experience.
"So much of my thinking about corporations is that it's actually the people themselves that make a real difference," Grattan tells me. "Almost always there's somebody who has stood up and sometimes they are at the top of the organisation and sometimes they're in the middle of the company, but almost always our stories begin with one person saying I absolutely believe in this and I want this to happen."
So what has she discovered about these individuals? "When I look at those leaders, they are people who I would say have taken both an outer journey and an inner journey. Business schools and corporations are very good at the outer journey. We're very good at training people in business strategy and how they do accounts and so on – and that, by the way, is really important because if a leader can't do that then you don't have a corporation.
"The inner journey is really about how the leader has found their voice, their courage, their authenticity, and what we've found is that inner journey seems to be really important for people who have been prepared to stand up. When I've talked to leaders who I think are making a difference, they almost always tell me about their own personal journey and very often that journey includes what we might call crucible experiences, things have happened to them that have given them the courage to now stand up and say 'I'm prepared to do that'."
Fostering the right conditions
Now, of course, you cannot buy epiphanies off the shelf and they tend to come at the most unexpected of times. But it is possible to create the conditions in which they occur and companies would do well to build these into leadership programmes.
The UK's Business in the Community has for many years been running a Seeing is Believing programme which takes business leaders to poor areas of the UK to see first-hand the challenges that marginalised groups face.
I have been on several of these and while they are to be commended in principle, these half-day visits more often than not fail to lead to long-term change; the executives are not immersed in the experience for nearly long enough. They also focus on social injustice and do not expose business leaders to the environmental degradation that their companies could be complicit in.
Executives get a very different experience at India's Hindustan Unilever: "One of the problems with some of the smartest people is that they're not really grounded at all in the day-to-day issues of living in India, the day-to-day issues of poverty," says Grattan. "So one of the things that Hindustan Unilever has done for years is take its young highest-potential graduates and put them into rural villages in India – some of which are very, very poor – and leave them there for up to one year.
"When I ask people in their fifties and sixties 'why are you doing anything about poverty?', it's often because they say to me 'I remember when I was 25 in that village and seeing that the kids didn't have any shoes and didn't have any hope'."
So it seems pretty clear that if business leaders are to have a hope of transforming their companies, they need to come out of their ivory towers and get up close and personal to issues they are normally protected from.
As Grattan points out: "If a high-potential person spends all their time driving around in a limousine, they never really bring the outside in. They never really understand and empathise with what it's like to be a mother bringing up a bunch of kids in a northern village in India where you are worried about where the next meal is going to come from.
"It's impossible for us in the west to understand that unless we've actually got very close to it. So I think how organisations socialise high-potential people into issues like poverty and sustainability is really important."
The full filmed interview with Lynda Grattan will appear on Guardian Sustainable Business in the coming weeks as part of a new video series.
The Ecologist is part of the Guardian environment network swap. Visit www.guardian.co.uk/environment
*Image courtesy of www.shutterstock.com
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