07/14/2010 10:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Secret of the Female Systems Thinker: Why Your Business Needs Her

Let's face it. Sustainable business development is a complex pursuit that can seem a tad touchy-feely in its woo-woo focus on people, planet and profit. All you really want to do as a decision-making executive is cut to the chase, right? It's not so much that you want to skip steps, but that you're determined to lay a solid foundation and begin to see that crucial return on investment. Pronto!

In your initial explorations into sustainable development, you've heard or read a few things like:

  • Tending to energy efficiencies can save companies big bucks.
  • Consumers really do notice corporate sustainability efforts (and expect a lot more than green-marketed products on the shelves).
  • Consumers expected sustainability and corporate social responsibility long before they knew what to call it.

What's going on? Could you use a little help about now?

Enter the systems thinker. That's the person who sees cost savings, environmental responsibility and people-tending in the same frame. This type of thinker sees the component parts of a system, not just linearly, but in the context of their relationships with each other and with other systems. The big news for sustainable businesses in particular is this: to gain the competitive edge, the systems thinking leader you need is a woman - or a man that has learned to think more like a woman.

According to research recently conducted by Worldview Learning, "women, not men, were the systemic thought leaders among the sustainable business leaders" sampled at the Sustainable Brands 2010 conference. To quote a post from Worldview's John Marshall Roberts:

Women displayed a significantly higher level of systemic thinking in relation to leadership and communication preferences (70th percentile nationally for women, vs. 56th percentile for men). Women were also more likely to be socially optimistic and to filter data based upon authenticity than men.

Though the Worldview findings come from an admittedly small sample, having studied gender in business for years myself, I suspect they uncover a clue worth exploring. And the clue is one that any business pursuing sustainable advantage must understand and develop around: it's all about empathy.

Women have generations of practice using and developing their empathic skills. When you combine that with solid business smarts, you get a sustainability powerhouse. It's probably safe to say that without empathy, no business leader -- male or female -- would come to believe in the "triple bottom line" or the "people, planet and profit" mission. It's the empathy extra that brings people and planet anywhere near the profit.

As Dan Pink suggested in his now-classic book, A Whole New Mind, empathy is something most of us need to develop in order compete in today's more conceptual (as opposed to industrial or informational) age. So... what if some of us naturally have a little bit more of that?

Women may be just the systems thinkers needed by today's emerging sustainable businesses. That's the secret. Now, put it to use.