Responsible business: the new generation of leaders who put nature first

What does strong leadership look in a world faced with a climate emergency? Two pioneering projects are switching from a focus on growth or competition to one that is more focused on interconnection and kindness.

Imagine you’re standing alone in a clearing in a secluded forest. You might be able to hear the wind rustling through the trees, the buzzing of the bees as they seek nectar, or faint sounds of birdsong. You might find leaves that crunch under your foot or flowers that release their scent if you shift a little. Now imagine you won’t be leaving this particular spot for 24 or 48 hours. 

The ‘wilderness solo’ is a core part of the retreats run by the Bio-Leadership Project. “A really interesting shift happens when we make time to notice, observe and connect with nature in a deeper way. We start to get a different sense of how the patterns of life and of healthy systems are very different to how we live our lives,” says founder Andres Roberts, who has been guiding people in nature for the past 12 years. “The world would be a very different place if just 5 per cent of the chief executives, 5 per cent of MBA [graduates]5% of teenagers [experienced it].” 

As well as running retreats, the project also works with organisations such as Patagonia, cosmetics company Natura & Co, and Aviva Investors, to challenge prevailing notions of leadership. Roberts believes their work is especially important now that the world is facing many uncertainties, including the growing climate crisis. 

“Traditional leadership is bound to this idea of continuous growth, to notions of zero-sum competition where no one wins … Those are the things that are at the root of unsustainability,” he says. “If you look at how nature works, there’s interconnection, regeneration, circularity and optimisation. If any one of the components tries to get as big as it can, it brings the whole system crashing down.” 

A growing number of leaders are putting sustainability in the center of their organisations. It’s good for business after all, and consumers are looking for it: 86 per cent of Brits say they want brandsBusinesses to take active steps to reduce their environmental impact. 52 per cent inform their purchase decisions based on a brands’ eco-credentials. 

But unfortunately, a public commitment to sustainability isn’t always as promising as it seems. The Dutch airline KLM, for example, is currently being suedIts recent advertising claims deceive the public about how sustainable its flight are, according to campaigners.

We need a different form of leadership, one that shows love, care and kindness – for society, for nature, and for ourselves

Some leaders make ill-informed decisions to exaggerate their impact for positive PR rather than because they believe in their responsibility to effect real change. In a global review of 500 websitesBy The International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network, (ICPEN),40% of green claims were found false This is why the European Commission has agreedTo require large companies to disclose the impact of their activities on the environment and supply chains on people starting in January 2024.

Roberts believes that leaders can inspire others to make the changes they desire. And he’s seeing a growing interest in his way of thinking. “We’ve launched a fellowship with people from all walks of life – some are responsible for talent in big companies, another is a regenerative farmer in Kenya, another works with children who have experienced violence in South Africa. What they have in common is they all feel like the status quo isn’t working; that it’s part of the problem. And that we have to somehow take a leap of faith into a different way of working.”  

The BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt also emphasizes leadership as a lever of change. Its. Responsible Leaders NetworkMore than 2,000 people are part of this global community from the charity, public and private sectors. “We believe leadership is the way to unlock [progress] and start creating narratives that can inspire new followers,” says Dr Eduardo Noboa, senior climate change specialist at the foundation. “Of course, you can educate the whole population, but we don’t have time for that. We need to start with those who are already making an impact and then support them. This is our view. [most] effective way to start a transformation.”

Responsible business

‘Business doesn’t have to be a destructive force, it can be creative and life-giving’. Image: Mikita Karasiou

One of the network’s main activities is to bring leaders together to collaborate and support each other, both financially and non-financially. Responsible leaders were involved in the creation of the network. League of IntrapreneursThe foundation works to promote change in the boardroom. The foundation also runs the Respond AcceleratorThe, which focuses on startups that are focused on impact and fosters strong leadership. It’s also closely aligned with the B Corp movement. 2019 30+ CEOs from B Corps such as Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, took out a full page ad in the New York Times urging leaders to “get to work” and make decisions to “balance profit and purpose”. 

Noboa says that connecting these leaders through platforms such the Responsible Leaders Network gives them opportunities to think outside the box. “We try to create unexpected encounters – we might connect a CEO with an artist, an engineer and a social scientist. They have reflections that create new perspectives, values and beliefs. This process can lead to some truly innovative ideas.

“At the moment, there are plenty of solutions to solve these multiple crises we are living in. There are many solutions and ideas available at the international climate change negotiations. Technology is great but we can’t come to a common understanding and we aren’t able to adapt. What we are lacking is the wheel,” he adds, referring to leaders who have the approach and knowledge required to take those ideas and put them into practice. 

We’ve got such a small window now to change things around. It’s impossible to do it all alone.

Roberts agrees. The Bio-Leadership Project’s fellowship currently has 80 members, which he’s hoping to expand to 300 people or projects over the next couple of years. “Business doesn’t have to be a destructive force, it can be creative and life-giving. But we need a different form of leadership, one that shows love, care and kindness – for society, for nature, and for ourselves. 

“We’ve got such a small window now to change things around. And nobody can do it alone.”

Main image: Ascent Xmedia/iStock

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