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Sustainability Management vs. Sustainability Leadership

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In the hallowed halls of B-School academia there is an ongoing debate over the meaning of management versus leadership. The distinction turns out to be really important for business sustainability.

In an earlier life, I was an environmental consultant managing remediation work -- a fancy word for cleaning up the industrial pollution of the past. But after confronting the huge costs of remediation and considering the fact that much ecological damage is irreversible, I became more interested in prevention. My 1990s doctoral studies focused on the adoption of environmentally superior technologies by businesses. The problem? Business wasn't adopting them, which could be easier to explain if the technologies were expensive, but in many cases they weren't. In fact, technologies that reduce pollution tend to be more efficient, which means they also cut costs. Even profitable innovations weren't seeing the light of day.

Today, two decades later, things are only marginally better. Every month it seems a company like Chrysler, P&G or Mattel announces dramatic achievements in reducing CO2 emissions, water use or energy consumption and generated multi-million dollar savings from doing so. And you might expect such stories would unleash a wave of profit-seeking business environmentalism. But it's not the case.

Most mangers and politicians think we need technological breakthroughs to solve our environmental problems. The truth is, with current technology we could deal with the majority of industrial pollution problems. The problem is not technology; it's management.

Managers manage tasks. They optimize current systems and processes to meet organizational goals. It's an important job, of course, but a conservative one. No one wants to change a system after they've fine tuned it. Tweak it, yes. Change it, no.

To get managers to change, you must motivate them. That's the job of leadership. It's said, "management comforts, leadership inspires" but there is very little sustainability inspiration going on in corporate meeting rooms and it's not because it is a hard sell to employees. In fact, studies show employees are more motivated and committed when the company is working towards social and environmental goals. Instead, the root of the issue lies with the current generation of corporate leaders who act more like managers when it comes to addressing business responsibility to the environment. Remember: tweak it, yes. Change it, no.

The world needs a new generation of sustainability leadership in C-suites around the planet. There are good examples out there to serve as role models. During his tenure as CEO of Alcan Inc., Travis Engen simultaneously shrunk greenhouse gas emission by 25 percent and grew revenues by 120 percent. Reaching outside the corporate walls, Unilever chairman Antony Burmans helped the company co-found the Marine Stewardship Council to foster the sustainable management of the world's fisheries. And Interface's CEO Ray Anderson has led the creation of one of the most environmentally sustainable production models on the planet, and in turn, inspired his workforce in ways that have won the company Fortune's coveted "100 Best Companies to Work For" award.

Solving our sustainability problems won't break the corporate bank and does not even depend on a technology breakthrough. It depends on inspirational business leadership that can change what the tasks managers manage. Let's concentrate on finding and fostering the inspiration and start acting on it.

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