Authors: Monique Cumin and Armelle Stoltz
Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, is often cited as an inspiring leader who dedicated his life to the protection of the environment. His awareness of ecological issues from the 1970s made him an exemplary pioneer. His personal connection to nature and living things, through the practice of climbing, allowed him to understand in depth the interdependence of Man with his ecosystem, our planet Earth. This is a principle that has guided him throughout his life, from the eco-conception of Patagonia products to the donation in 2022 of his company to a foundation that fights climate change. What lessons can we learn from his example? What are the qualities that the leaders of today and tomorrow need to accelerate the ecological transition?
Leadership with vision and action across the entire system
Yvon Chouinard, like other pioneering leaders, has shown an exceptional ability to assume his share of responsibility in the degradation of our environment and act to define new standards. In the 1970s, he decided to replace the climbing pitons, which damaged the rocks, with new models that left no traces, thus creating “clean climbing”.
If business is part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. 6 of the 9 planetary boundaries have already been crossed, endangering the stability of our home Earth. Leaders who have opened their eyes to the issues that threaten the survival of humanity cannot remain indifferent. They are aware of the need to rethink the whole system: their value chains, their economic models which today lead to the depletion of energy resources and raw materials, the reflexes of individualism and the search for profit at all costs, without taking into account basic human needs and the protection of the environment on which our life depends.
Courage and resilience to set a new course and stick to it
Rethinking the system means choosing a new course. It is also for the leader to give up short-termism, where decisions are guided by the pressure of the profit of the year. The regenerative leader engages in a courageous dialogue with shareholders and investors to involve them and convince them of the approach.
Rethinking the system very often involves changing the economic model, to get out of a linear logic of resource depletion, and move towards circularity, reuse, the functionality and service economy, or even the regenerative economy. This does not happen overnight, but it is important to start experimenting today. The leaders who drive these transformations demonstrate the resilience to stay the course for many years.
Qualities of conviction to embark their entire ecosystem
Leaders who engage in the in-depth transformation of their organization are then faced with a monumental challenge. How to get their entire ecosystem on board, inside and even beyond their own company: their colleagues, their customers, their customers' customers, their suppliers, the entire value chain, sometimes even their competitors?
This immense task of positive influence, going against the tide of established models, requires real courage:
- carry a vision that involves efforts and renunciations while advancing into the unknown, without being able to immediately provide proven solutions.
- take the risk of being mocked, caricatured, misunderstood.
- take responsibility for possible failure if results are not delivered quickly.
- make mistakes, say that he does not know, trust without having any guarantees.
- be a role model, while not being perfect.
Humility is essential, a “test & learn” mindset is the rule.
“All our actions create zones of influence that extend far beyond what we can see” Joanna Macy, deep ecology writer.
Leaders carrying out these transformations must know how to spread positive energy into their teams, by communicating an inspiring vision, its expected benefits and the first successes. People want to follow them because they speak with their heart and their guts, not just their head, and are in touch with the living systems. Beyond the businessman or woman, it is the human in them who speaks, the parent, the citizen. Their lucid optimism brings hope in a situation where it is easy to feel helpless.
Deep listening to create a culture of cooperation internally and externally
Bringing all stakeholders on board requires much closer and broader cooperation with a large number of actors. Internally, first of all, the leaders mobilize all employees and break down silos: R&D which passes the ball back to purchasing or marketing, supply which declares itself powerless in the face of directives from finance. And externally in parallel, they work with the authorities to review standards that slow down virtuous initiatives, they stimulate supplier innovation, they encourage customers to reduce their negative impacts, they participate in coalitions that make it possible to change the rules of an entire sector.
To reap all the benefits of cooperation with stakeholders, leaders know how to surround themselves with diversity, as in living ecosystems: diversity of points of view, of generations, of genders, of cultures. This wealth is the source of the most fruitful initiatives.
All these leadership qualities are not necessarily present in a single providential man or woman. At Seedlings, our belief is that the whole organisation must change: the leaders, the pioneers, agents of change in all the departments of the company, then all the employees, the suppliers and the customers.