10/17/2012 03:14 pm ET | Updated Dec 17, 2012

Platonic Sustainability Leadership

When men like Adam Smith founded modern capitalist thinking, did they abandon earlier knowledge of what it takes to foster a sustainable world? Was the wisdom of ancients like Plato lost with the rise of ideas like free markets and the belief that the pursuit of self interest by itself creates a better world? Classical scholar and Princeton Politics Professor Melissa Lane makes that case in her book Eco-Republic, published by Princeton University Press.

Lane's intriguing implication is that sustainability leadership is as much about fostering a new mindset as it is about adopting cleaner technologies or more equitable social policies. Leaders in the ancient world thought and made decisions differently. They understood that they were embedded in an interdependent social web and they knew that their decisions had to take into account not just self-interest but the collective interest as well.

In contrast, modern free market theory largely absolves business leaders from these considerations, under the assumption that self-interested decisions, guided by perfect markets, will lead to the greatest good for the greatest number. In other words, focus on your bottom line and the rest will take care of itself.

Much of recent sustainability thinking has been about bringing the larger social web back into executive decision making. Unfortunately, that shift is happening piecemeal and within the traditional business mindset. We add a double "social" bottom line or a triple "environmental" bottom line to our existing financial accounting. Lane argues this compartmentalization invites leaders to think in terms of trade-offs, not integration.

Another founder of our modern world, Albert Einstein, prophetically claimed, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." If sustainability leadership requires shaking people out of their current thinking and opening them to new mindsets, how can it be done? Plato himself illustrates an approach.

Plato famously used the allegory of the cave to show people the limits of their thinking. In his parable, prisoners are chained in a cave and only perceive the world as shadows on the wall. It's their understanding of reality. But when freed they see that they were working from a limited perspective and gain a larger understanding of how the world works.

Likewise, we find ourselves in social caves of our own making, constrained by culture, nationality, beliefs and ideologies. While not chained by others, we chain ourselves by comfortably surrounding ourselves with likeminded people who reinforce our beliefs. A narrowcasting internet allows us to choose which shadows on the wall -- in the form of talk radio, our favorite blogger, Fox News or MSNBC -- we attend to.

Plato wanted to help people become aware of the cave that constrains their thinking. The real challenge is for the leader to become aware of his or her own cave first. As Eco-Republic makes clear, a surprisingly good place to start is with the wisdom of the ancients.