Through his public actions and declarations as the former CEO of Unilever, it is clear that from the start of his career Paul Polman has had a deep sense of duty to society and the world. Intending to be a priest or doctor, he eventually settled on economics and business as the best way to improve people’s lives.6 But it was while looking into his children’s eyes that Polman’s desire to tackle climate change and inequality, to ensure their future well-being, gathered real urgency.7 Since then, he has been on a crusade, galvanizing support for sustainability. During our conversation, Polman explained, “Leadership for me is not just driving a company, [it’s] about making it do the right thing. It’s really about helping to transform entire markets and behaviors beyond those your own company is engaged in to the benefit of all.” True leadership in turbulent times is about having the vision and fortitude to establish a new normal.
Polman clearly sees the need for collective action. As he told me, “At the end of the day, the issues that we need to solve are so big that no one can do it alone.” Many of the top executives I spoke to agreed that an important first step to driving sustainability efforts is for leaders to move past individual ownership of very big problems and to turn them into collective-ownership issues. There are fewer and fewer problems specific to any one company, industry, or even country. As a result, global initiatives—preventing climate change, deforestation, or declining biodiversity—demand that we take a collective approach toward ownership. The COVID-19 crisis, which has highlighted the need for further cooperation among companies, supply chains, and governments, brings immediacy to this imperative.
Pulling off effective collaboration is tricky because of the systemic nature of these challenges, and the fact that solutions are often not apparent or straightforward. As Polman explained, “There’s a fine line between arrogance and self-confidence, between humility and humanity, when you implement programs with external collaborators.” The size and skill that large companies can bring to the table may at times inadvertently overpower the voices of others. Balancing the need to push progress at a steady pace without undermining your partners becomes ever more important to solving the problems at hand.
Polman went on to say: “Global warming is a complex issue not fully understood by many leaders. You have to be a very good systemic thinker to deal with it. Rather than worry about it, you need to think about how you are going to adapt your business model or how you can make transformational change happen.” The “how” becomes the most important thing, not the “what.” More recently, Polman further stressed the need for business leaders to take initiative: “We also don’t have the right level of cooperation at the global governance level to deal with these issues, and I hope that the business community will step up and fill that void.”
Challenged with the existential crisis of our times, corporate leaders must avoid inertia and take ownership of sustainability. As in the examples here, through a journey of personal transformation, many leaders today are reimagining their company’s corporate purpose and the role of business in society and reinforcing the sense of sustainability ownership through a course of action both internally and externally that benefits not only people and planet but also profit. When you take ownership of sustainability, you bring to life a new leadership mandate for you and your top team. What are you waiting for?