I recently read the book written by the late Ray C. Anderson entitled “Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist”, published in April, 2011. Ray was the CEO of Interface, a carpet tiles company with annual sales of more than one billion dollars. The book is relevant because it shows the type of corporate leadership we need today to move the sustainability agenda.
Ray embodied the qualities of a responsible leader. At the individual level, he was inspiring and he had a vision. He could see the big picture and the linkages between the economic, ecological and moral factors. He thought short and long term, and he understood that you can’t go on consuming more than your environment is able to renew. He decided to get his petroleum-intensive company off oil, and he set a very ambitious goal for his company to have zero environmental foot-print by 2020.
At the organization level, Ray was able to do three key things, 1) he brought the sustainability principles into the core of the business, 2) he established appropriate management systems designed for responsibility, and 3) he was willing to lead his industry early in the game. Innovation followed and sustainability became a source of opportunity and competitive advantage for Interface. At one point they asked themselves, “do people really need to buy carpets?” They came up with a surprising answer, no. They made a shift and offered customers the option to lease carpets.
At the society level, Ray practiced collective leadership. He knew that to make greater contributions to society, his individual company was too limited. He teamed up with competitors, regulators, suppliers and communities to address larger social and environmental challenges.
I wish more business leaders would follow Ray’s footsteps. This book should be a must read for senior leaders and board members.