Today, I’m pleased to publish the second in a series of guest posts about redefining leadership from Aron Cramer, the president and CEO of BSR. BSR (formerly Business for Social Responsibility) works with its 250 member companies to promote a more just and sustainable world, through research, consulting and industry collaborations. Aron, who’s a longtime colleague and friend, has worked all over the world on business issues ranging from labor rights in global supply chains to Internet freedoms in China to the meaning of “sustainable consumption.” Here, he writes about the importance of listening to and learning from voices at the margins.
When I was researching my book Sustainable Excellence, Nike CEO Mark Parker told me that he manages by the principle that “there are a lot of smart people in the world, and most of them don’t work for me.” And while Parker is duly proud of the people he does have at Nike, he points to a central truth: Valuable insight and knowledge is now held in more hands than at any other time in human history.
As we consider how leadership is changing, it is clear that today’s most effective leaders have the ability—and willingness—to listen to weak voices they would have considered irrelevant to their business a generation ago. Indeed, these leaders are able to see across multiple disciplines, perspectives, and geographies.
Historically, leadership used to be exercised by people (usually men) who had a corner on information, and who would speak with unshakeable authority. They were expected to have all the answers. Today, those who lead do so through their ability to find all the answers. As Stewart Brand famously said, “information wants to be free.” In a world which is drowning in data, no own can monopolize knowledge; but smart leaders can win by listening to voices that others ignore and by mining the data for fresh insights.
More recently, corporate leaders tried to understand the world through different eyes by focusing on “engagement” with NGOs. That, too, is changing. Today, NGOs are no longer the gatekeepers of public opinion, any more than daily newspapers are the gatekeepers of information.
In this context, the resilience of business strategies depends on the degree to which company leaders look in unfamiliar places for insights, answers, and technical expertise.
A case in point is the consumer products sector, which is struggling to balance sluggish economies, consumers empowered by technology as never before, and the need to achieve greater sustainability.. Next week, the World Economic Forum will publish a paper I co-drafted on the “weak signals” that have the potential to change this industry in the next several years. But topics like the quantified self, collaborative consumption, and the “internet of things” are not widely known and are part of only a few business strategies today. Understanding where things go next is a form of social R&D that will allow consumer products companies to see risks they don’t appreciate currently.
It’s often the case with sustainability, as with many things, that changes seem inevitable only in hindsight. More than 10 years ago, I spoke with Human Rights Watch about the importance of protecting free expression on the Internet. But it was not until several years later that the topic erupted into public view, taking many by surprise.
Similarly, over the next several years, issues like privacy and bioethics will become more important and complex. And the ongoing search for energy and natural resources will lead us into even more environmentally and politically sensitive areas, from the Arctic to Afghanistan. This will likely play out in the context of frayed social contracts in developed economies, with economic stagnation magnifying generational conflict between aging baby boomers seeking to preserve their future and 20-somethings looking to get out of the starting gate.
But that’s not to say that these changes can’t be predicted. With the right networks, and by asking the right questions, leaders can avoid being caught off guard. The question, then, is how to identify tomorrow’s voices.