Creating infinite growth on a finite planet

The lessons of Inner Leadership are an essential step to delivering sustainable leadership. They bring stability, focus, alignment, and competitive advantage.

This is the last in a series of eight articles explaining why and how.

We started our search for sustainable leadership as a way to understand more deeply what it takes to build a sustainable brand. What we quickly found is that sustainable leadership brings the potential to make existing models of leadership “obsolete” by creating organisations that grow stronger with every challenge they face.

The subsequent articles led us through the steps needed to achieve this. They showed how sustainable leadership uses vision, values, and purpose to inspire people to move through the three stages of transition. We learned how to create an inspiring vision, how to find more opportunities in a crisis, and how to select the one that is best for us. Finally, we saw that implementation is more likely to succeed when we learn to make clearer sense of a changing world and connect more deeply with who we are and what matters most to us.

Together, these steps define the seven competencies of sustainable leadership.

Placed in reverse order, they also describe a process for achieving sustainable leadership:

  1. Centre and ground: connect deeply with who you are and what matters most to you
  2. Check for mistaken assumptions, spot emerging patterns
  3. Find more opportunities in the situation you face
  4. Choose the one that suits you best
  5. Check how it aligns with your purpose and values
  6. Articulate your chosen way forward as an inspiring vision-story
  7. Use vision, values, and purpose to speed the transitions as you move forward

Any individual who applies this framework will connect more deeply with what matters most to them, find more ways to apply that in the situations they face, and increase their ability to get the outcomes they want. As they do this they will learn more about themselves and become more able to put that into practice: they will self-actualise.

Any organisation that applies this framework will become more stable and directed. When issues arise it will know which ones to ignore and which to pay attention to. For the issues that matter, it will find a wider range of solutions and put them into practice more quickly and inspiringly. Such organisations will use change to become stronger. In a VUCA time of constant change this brings sustainable competitive advantage.


Generative Enterprise, Generative Economy

Combined, such people and organisations become a new kind of enterprise, aligned around their shared purpose and values:

  • The people provide the energy and enthusiasm for getting things done. This brings higher quality, shorter timeframes, lower costs, plus greater resilience and adaptability. As Gallup has shown, “a highly engaged work-force means the difference between a company that outperforms its competitors [by 147%!] and one that fails to grow.”
  • The organisation provides an inspiring and supportive environment. This not only gives people more enthusiasm for tackling the issues that arise but also enables them to do so in ways that challenge, stretch, and develop them. The more that people then discover and develop their own unique talents (self-actualise), the more they will develop and deliver unique products and services for the organisation. This is why companies like Google create “an environment where people can flourish and grow,” then commercialise the best of whatever emerges.

Together, organisation and people become ‘generative’: they each help the other to grow.

Together, they become a kind of mechanism for putting their shared values and purpose into practice in a VUCA world.

Together, they generate stability, enthusiasm, and growth.

And what happens next, as Paul Polman of Unilever has described, is that others feel attracted to join in and contribute. In this way the generative attitude of a single sustainable leader becomes manifested into the culture of an organisation, then outwards into a generative business ecosystem of suppliers, customers, and investors that each help the others to grow.


Sustainable Leadership Revisited

Let’s return to the map of sustainable leadership we started from and understand it more clearly.

This map lays out the activities that have been described as “sustainability.” It shows that sustainability is not an activity but an attitude of mind: of how to carry out the activities any business needs to perform.

In the bottom left corner, that attitude is about complying with the minimum requirements set by others. This is extractive leadership.

Towards the centre of the chart, sustainability is about optimising the value, cost, and risk of our own organisation by aligning more collaboratively with our externalities. This is where many of us are now.

And towards the top right of the chart we are seeing an emerging approach: one that is about recognising ourselves as part of something bigger (purpose), then working to adapt our behaviour in ways that improve the performance of that whole (ecosystem). This is generative, sustainable leadership.


Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet

Humanity faces a choice. At the end of each year we can either have a little less of the key resources that matter or a little more.

Having less at the end of each year is the extractive model of leadership we have followed for thousands of years. When humanity was small and the Earth’s resources seemed infinite this made sense. But we are now using the resources of 1.6 Earths per year: we are shrinking the carrying capacity of our spaceship and we need to change our habit.

Strategically, the only alternative is to generate a little more of the resources that matter. This might seem impossible but that is only because we have not yet learned how to do it. We need to become generative, to generate more. There is no alternative.

Unilever and others are already showing us how to do this. By adopting a different attitude (an attitude we call “sustainability”) and using it to inspire new solutions, they are already building generative organisations and generative business ecosystems, where each part grows the others. This can bring us infinite growth on a finite planet: not necessarily infinite in terms of quantity, but definitely infinite in terms of quality, variety, and value.

The aim of this series of articles has been to make this process explicit and accelerate it.

We can create an abundant, generative world by creating abundant, generative organisations. And we can create abundant, generative organisations by creating abundant, generative leaders.

The seven steps of sustainable leadership outlined above are a way to achieve this. They are a framework (with tools) for enabling any of us to connect more deeply with what matters most to us, find more ways to apply that better, and in so doing develop ourselves, our organisations, and the world.

Originally published by Sustainable Brands.

Photo By NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via

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