Leadership and Sustainability in Business

The ruins of classical Greece remind us that there are things that last, and things that don’t. Ancient Athens destroyed itself through greed and pride, yet many of its ideas still enrich our world today. The Greeks gave us, among other things, a proper understanding of the concept of justice, which is essential for the sustainability of civilization.

The classical definition of justice is suum cuique, to each his due. It recognizes that all human beings have rights. But where do rights come from? And if we have a duty to respect them, to whom do we owe that obligation, and why? Interesting how quickly a discussion about justice becomes an argument about morality, and everyone runs for cover.

However, morality is an inescapable part of any discussion on leadership and sustainability in business. If we accept that leadership inspires people to be the best they can be in working together for the good of all, the moral implications emerge quite naturally. And the definition throws new light on the issue of sustainability, understood as maintaining and enhancing environmental, social, and economic resources for current and future needs.

Now everybody knows that leadership and sustainability in business both address the challenge of the triple bottom line: making the business sustainable by increasing profits, meeting social responsibilities, and being active in the proper stewardship of the environment.

In other words, business is required to do what is good for profitability, society, and the environment, now and for the future. Anything bad for profitability, society, or the environment, must be removed. Sustainability requires promoting what helps and removing what harms.

Here’s an example. I come from a country that doesn’t exist anymore. Rhodesia was rich in people and resources, and very prosperous. Sadly, it had an unsustainable socio-political arrangement – some people were treated unjustly because of the colour of their skin, and that led inevitably to violence. This was an ethical issue that only leadership could have resolved.

Interestingly, the record of the white government in relation to the economy and the environment was excellent by international standards. But that was not enough. Rhodesia proved unsustainable because it compromised one of the three factors in the triple bottom line, the good of all people.

The biggest problem we have in promoting sustainability is deciding what the good is. We live in an age of values, in which everyone is free to choose what he or she considers to be their personal goods. And most people believe “what’s good for you is not necessarily good for me.” For people today, individual choice is the highest good.

How did this happen? In economics, the theory of subjective value, in which the value of goods depends on what people are prepared to pay for them, led to the elevation of the individual as arbiter in deciding the value of goods. When this idea was applied to politics, ethics, and culture, the concept of values (what I choose) replaced virtue (what is good for me, others, and the environment).

The belief that there is no such thing as objective good, but only subjective preference, had been developing for centuries, and if we want to understand current obstacles to leadership and sustainability, it is important to note that the sovereignty of values and the will of the individual is neither a scientifically nor philosophically robust idea.

The development of this thinking is well documented. The father of modern philosophy, Descartes, popularized the idea of the disengaged self, asserting personal sovereignty over the community and nature. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau promoted the unhistorical idea of the social contract, which made all relationships negotiable. Hume championed modern skepticism, questioning the validity of both truth and morality, and Kant’s Categorical Imperative, the idea that rational beings should choose to do only what could be accepted as a universal rule of conduct, failed to save the moral consensus.

Instead, Utilitarianism – the greatest good of the greatest number – became the most widely accepted moral stance. Moral issues are decided by calculating outcomes, the end justifying the means. Nietzsche’s widely influential “will to power” and the nihilistic attitude that says, “my will is the only thing that matters”, made this dangerous mix even more toxic.

This philosophical pedigree explains the moral confusion in the modern West. Our scientific knowledge is greater than ever, yet we are constantly locked in unseemly screaming matches over climate change, fracking, geopolitical crises, economic policy, financial management, corporate malfeasance, political corruption, social dysfunction, and much more.

Western society is plagued by dishonesty, stress, dysfunctional relationships, and loneliness. Where is the leadership? And precisely what is it that we are sustaining? How can we expect people in the workplace to approach these moral issues with anything other than self-interest, cynicism, and indifference?

How do we overcome the confusion? A few years ago, HBR ran an article on morality in business in which the researchers compared corporate codes of conduct from leading companies all around the world. They were amazed by the amount of cross-cultural common ground they discovered. Moreover, the data distilled down to the fundamental principles of honesty and justice, endorsing yet again the wisdom of classical philosophy.

A sincere commitment to the triple bottom line requires a return to virtue, built around the Cardinal Virtues of practical wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice. These are the qualities that build character in the individual and a healthy culture in the organization. These are the qualities that inspire employees and managers to respect your business, respect other people and society at large, and to respect the environment.

The standards are not values, open to individual choice; they are virtues through which individuals, the community, and the environment flourish. Sustainability is about building a better future – and that is precisely what leadership is about. Informed, visionary stewardship of resources is central to genuine leadership. A vision that ignores sustainability is not a vision, but either folly or fraud.

Leadership and sustainability are matters of justice, of obligations to others. They are ethical issues in which science provides essential guidance but no binding obligation. Inevitably, it all comes back to your worldview, your ethical framework. The choice is simple: we either go on ignoring the moral confusion that erodes leadership and sustainability, or we confront it in the name of justice.

Andre van Heerden heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity™, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, Leading like you mean it, and An Educational Bridge for Leaders.