What does strong leadership look like in a world facing a climate emergency? Two pioneering projects are swapping a focus on growth and competition for one that centres on interconnection, kindness and circularity
Imagine you’re standing alone in a clearing in a secluded forest. Perhaps you can hear the wind whistling through the trees, or bees buzzing as they search for nectar, or the faint notes of birdsong. Maybe, if you shift your weight slightly there are leaves that crunch under foot, or flowers that release their scent. 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] and 5 per cent 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 argues that their work is particularly important now, as the world battles myriad uncertainties, including the escalating 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.”
An increasing number of leaders are putting sustainability at the heart of their organisations. It’s good for business after all, and consumers are looking for it: 86 per cent of Brits say they want brands and businesses to actively take steps to minimise their impact on the environment, and 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 sued over some of its recent advertising, which campaigners claim deceives the public about how sustainable its flights are.
We need a different form of leadership, one that shows love, care and kindness – for society, for nature, and for ourselves
And some leaders are making misguided decisions to overstate their impact for positive PR, rather than because of a belief in their responsibility to enact real change. In a global review of 500 websites by the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN), 40 per cent of green claims were found to be false. To tackle such greenwashing, the European Commission has agreed to mandate large companies to be more open about the impact of their activities and supply chains on the environment and people, from January 2024.
But rather than delivering progress through regulation, Roberts hopes to inspire leaders to be the change they want to see. 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 focuses on leadership as a lever for change. Its Responsible Leaders Network is a global community of more than 2,000 people from the private, public and charity 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. So we need to start with the people who are already having a certain impact and support them. We think this is the fastest and [most] effective way to start a transformation.”
‘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. For example, responsible leaders have been involved in creating the League of Intrapreneurs, which aims to create change in the boardroom. And the foundation runs the Respond Accelerator, which elevates startups focused on impact while nurturing a strong leadership approach. It’s also closely aligned with the B Corp movement. In 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”.
Connecting these leaders through platforms such as the Responsible Leaders Network provides opportunities to think outside of the box, Noboa says. “We try to create unexpected encounters – we might connect a CEO with an artist, an engineer and a social scientist. They have reflections which create new perspectives, values, and beliefs. Out of this process comes really great innovative ideas.
“At the moment, there are plenty of solutions to solve these multiple crises we are living in. If you go to the international negotiations of climate change, for example, there are plenty of ideas and solutions technologies, but we cannot come to a consensus and we are not able to change. 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. And nobody can do it 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.”