This post was originally intended to be about the need for urgency and high-level global collaboration to accelerate progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.  After all, we’re officially “in” the Decade of Action.  The SDGs come due in 2030, we’re already off track, and Covid-19 is further derailing the needed global focus on the very blueprint that is designed to achieve social and environmental prosperity and enhance global security (i.e. a sustainable future) for all.

But while writing on that subject, I was continually derailed by the current fiasco playing out in Washington by a narcissistic “leader” who refuses to gracefully concede a lost (and fully transparent) election.

And even more troubling is the lack of courage exhibited by fellow politicians to put the country first and actually serve the greater good – which is what they have been elected to do – while the actions of their “leader” threaten the very core of democracy both here and abroad.

And on deeper reflection, I realized that these two major themes are connected, because leading positive change on the level of sustainable development requires able, authentic leaders.

Bear with me, and for those who take offense to my comments on the actions of the current President and his Party allies, whose silence is absolutely deafening, know that I am willing to respectfully listen to your opinions, too, because that is what we are called to do in our democratic system.  And hopefully in the process we’ll find some areas for agreement, grounded in truth.

Understanding Leadership

First, let’s talk about leadership – what it is, and what it isn’t. 

I teach leadership, and I teach innovation for sustainability.  In one of my classes we combine those themes in order to create change leaders seeking to advance sustainability principles in organizations – leaders who recognize the importance of accounting for externalities and promoting triple bottom line wins to ensure a sustainable future for all global citizens. 

But in all of the resources on leadership that I’ve reviewed, I’ve never seen one that promotes the idea that leadership is a zero-sum game – where the best leaders achieve a 100% win at the expense of an affiliated stakeholder who loses all, where opposing stakeholders are branded as villains and losers (as opposed to partners), and where compromise is disdainful.

Such an approach is not only morally unacceptable, it isn’t sustainable – promising to lead to deep fractures and unrest in organizations and the greater society. 

It’s not leadership at all.

The incessant quest for “win-lose” solutions to negotiations yields a “lose-lose” result for many.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned in business was that when working with external stakeholders, our approach should be:  we want to win something, and we want them to win something, too.  Such an approach involves compromise, and leads to genuine, durable relationships based on mutual respect, trust, and goodwill.  These principles form the essence of productive partnerships, and effective leaders embrace them.   

And today that lesson and those foundational principles underpin the rapidly spreading concept of shared value – as we increasingly come to terms with the damage we are inflicting on climate and the environment and the associated inequities faced by billions across the planet.  There is no Planet B to fall back on, and we have limited time to rein in our ecological footprint while elevating living conditions for those lacking access to healthy food, clean water, healthcare, and safe living conditions.

Making substantial progress on the SDGs is the ultimate win-win result for the world.  But we’ll never get there with leaders pushing a zero-sum agenda.

For centuries, business operations have been externalizing their costs to the detriment of people and planet.  That “business as usual” approach, which understates “true” costs, is no longer an option.

Business organizations must now consider the impact of their actions on society, and their leaders increasingly get it.  Just look at the list of over 3,600 benefit (B) corporations who balance purpose and profit, with a legal requirement to consider the impact of their decisions on their workforce, customers, suppliers, their community, and the environment.  Or consider Danone’s announcement earlier this year regarding reporting earnings per share on a carbon-adjusted basis.  As Danone’s CEO Emmanuel Faber noted in a recent EAT-Forum talk, the pandemic has made many of us aware that our ways of living “simply ignored that we rely on Nature…to exist and to thrive.”  In other words, we can’t separate the impact of our decisions and policies on society.

Investors increasingly get it, too, as climate risk is now a key factor driving institutional investments.  ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) investing (and SRI, Socially Responsible Investing) is now mainstream – with evidence that ESG funds have outperformed conventional funds over the last ten years.  

And in this critical Decade of Action, we especially need government leaders and policymakers to understand the importance of their decisions – to not only work toward prioritizing policies and actions to make tangible progress toward the SDGs, but to lead collaborative efforts for the Goals with other nations, and with great urgency.  

Such understanding and collaborative energy has been completely lacking in our current Administration, as is becoming ever more painfully aware in this post-Election period.  More to follow on that. 

Debunking Strong leadership

Let’s briefly touch on “strong” leaders, too.

We seem to have a misguided predilection for “strong leaders” today.  But what does that term really mean? 

On the surface, I believe it involves the idea of someone who will “win” as much as possible for “us” – again, at the expense of everyone else.  I think that mindset is shortsighted, and dangerous – and it is increasingly taking us away from a needed focus on the greater good, and on improving the welfare of humanity through the SDGs.

Strong leaders aren’t narcissistic leaders who focus only on themselves and deny truth and reality, as we saw with Enron, for example, and as we’ve seen for the last four years with the current President and his enablers.  Such “leaders” only breed disaster. 

In my view, strong leaders are just the opposite.  They put the greater cause above themselves.  They are servant leaders, enabling their people and always pushing credit to others.  And they are authentic, committed to truth and candor while always doing the “right” thing and being unafraid to show vulnerability.

Ever see a senior leader put himself (or herself) out on the line and admit a failure while showing commitment to a greater purpose?  If you have, you understand the power of such moments, and how organizational members rally around servant leaders demonstrating such vulnerability, such authenticity.

I would also argue that strong leadership is about collaboration, and a commitment to winning together for a greater good.  And in today’s business world, I would argue that strong leaders are committed to creating shared value – adhering to good governance standards and providing social and environment benefit while producing positive financial returns.   

The antithesis of leadership

Flash to the present.  What we are seeing from the current President of the United States and his Administration – the complete and utter denial of truth, baseless and costly legal challenges that divert scarce resources from productive use elsewhere, disparagement of scores of volunteers who devoted themselves to ensuring a transparent election, callous terminations of high-placed individuals simply because they hold dissenting views, and the overt obstruction of needed information flow and resources to the President-elect’s team – can only be described as a childish charade.  And an incredibly dangerous one at that. 

All of the above, and more, while a raging pandemic which the President continues to ignore has now taken 250,000 lives and will take many more.  Needlessly. 

Our President huddles in the White House (now referred to as a bunker), denying reality, spreading lies, distrust, and divisiveness that threaten the core of democracy while desperately trying to rally other “leaders” to join him.  At such a critical time, we see zero governance, only incessant displays of ego and a new level of arrogance that goes with power, and a focus on how to commercialize and monetize the office of the President.

This isn’t leadership.  It is the antithesis of leadership.  It is a complete abdication of leadership.

The fact that the majority of elected Republican Senators and governors have gone along with this charade, supporting it and denying truth, and similarly putting themselves above the good of the country, is even worse.  And making excuses for the current President to come to terms with loss – rather than conceding and enabling the immediate transition to the President-elect’s team for the good of the country and for global security – is inexcusable. 

Again, this isn’t leadership.

When have we seen a Board of Directors allow an ousted CEO to pine away and wreak havoc with company resources for weeks before finally showing him/her the door?

These elected individuals took an oath to serve and to put their country, the greater good, above themselves.

Again, their silence is deafening.  Leaders?  Far from it.

Our country and the nations of the world deserve much better.

The actions of these officials have colossal negative implications for the future of true democracy in this country and around the world. 

They have also reduced America’s credibility to advocate for, and lead, SDG initiatives to improve the health of the planet and the welfare of global citizens. 

And they have certainly reduced our ability to drive meaningful collaborative efforts for positive change among nations, for the current President and his enablers have clearly demonstrated that they care only for their personal agendas, and that they place no value in truth.

Without adherence to truth, and without a willingness to collaborate for the greater good, there is no basis for authentic leadership. 

And without authentic leadership, we cannot lead the needed change for sustainable development.

In Good to Great, leadership expert Jim Collins characterized the best (Level 5) leaders as having two critical characteristics – humility and indomitable will, which he once described as “an absolute obsessed burning compulsive ambition that wasn’t about them,” but was instead “for a cause, for a company, for the work, for a set of values…not themselves.”  He added that such leaders have the ability to translate that ambition, “subjugating themselves to something that is not about them.”

In other words, Level 5 leaders lead in a spirit of service. 

How different from what we have seen, and what we are seeing, from the Trump Administration and the vast majority of elected Republican officials fully two weeks after the Election.

Linkage to the SDGs

To change our course, we need leaders that are committed to serve, who place the country (and the welfare of humanity) above themselves.  Such a mindset would naturally involve caring about sustainable development.

Although not often covered in as much detail, it’s worth mentioning that two of the Goals have strong ties to the themes of leadership, collaboration, and effective governance for the greater good.

SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions), for example, is designed to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Notable Targets under this Goal include:

  • Promoting the rule of law at national and international levels to ensure equal access to justice for all
  • Developing effective, accountable, and transparent institutions at all levels of society
  • Ensuring responsive, inclusive, participatory, and representative decision-making at all levels, and
  • Ensuring public access to information and protecting fundamental freedoms

In other words, SDG 16 is about good governance, and it requires effective leaders who embrace integrity and truth.

Similarly, SDG 17 is designed to strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize global partnerships for sustainable development.  Notable Targets under this Goal include:

  • Mobilizing additional financial resources for developing countries from multiple sources
  • Adopting and implementing investment promotion regimes for less developed countries
  • Promoting the development, transfer and dissemination of environmentally-sound technologies to developing countries on favorable terms
  • Enhancing international support for implementing effective and targeted capacity building in developing countries to support national plans to implement all of the Sustainable Development Goals

In other words, SDG 17 is about collaboration and partnership creation to help the developing world advance in a sustainable fashion.

Clearly, these two Goals support the other fifteen, and they require effective, authentic, collaborative leaders to advance global sustainable development.

As I’ve said often on this blog, we are in need of a new level of leadership to bring the nations of the world together to actively focus on all of the challenges underlying the Sustainable Development Goals – hunger, poverty, water security, biodiversity, ocean health, climate, plastics, and more.

There is colossal opportunity in these challenges for innovations that will drive global prosperity and create a more humane, secure world.

Who wouldn’t want that?

But the abdication of leadership that we are seeing in Washington, beyond the threat to democracy in general, also has serious negative implications for the pursuit of the SDGs – for if we can’t govern ourselves without fomenting dissent and divisiveness, and without a commitment to truth, we won’t be able to focus on true solutions to humanitarian and environmental challenges.  And we certainly won’t have any credible standing to lead change for sustainability.

We need truth, integrity, and compassion from our leaders.  And we need a spirit of collaboration for the greater good.

We need to get back to the notion of honorable compromise, where we can engage in healthy, respectful debate and emerge feeling that we both win something.

The future of American democracy rests on it, as does our contribution to the future of a sustainable planet.

Changing the lexicon

It’s clear that we need to get on a new path, starting with a commitment to ideals of truth, integrity, empathy, civility, and collaboration.  A commitment to putting the greater good above personal needs and egos.

To start on this path, we might consider a basic change in the way that our elected officials speak.

Without fail, they all say they will “fight for us.”  But if they are fighting for us, they are fighting against someone else.  We’ve taken the “fight” mindset so far that the idea of compromise is a non-starter; we simply perpetuate the zero-sum approach.  Our mindset is “I win, you lose” – and with that mindset, society loses, too.

Another example that we’ve heard all too often in the last two weeks:  our Parties are “digging in” for the next fight.  How refreshing would it be if we flipped that phrasing and started thinking in terms of “reaching out?”  The latter breeds the needed mindset change for compromise.  Let’s create the space for negotiations where “I win some, and you win some, and society gains.”

Last, let’s move away from the concept of “my base” or “your base” and speak in terms of the entire country as being “our base.”

A call for commitment

This blog has long focused on topics related to global food system challenges, including the challenge of feeding 10 billion global citizens by 2050 in a sustainable manner.  And related, it has focused on the imperative of accelerating progress on the Sustainable Development Goals and the critical linkages between them. 

As noted above, I have often called for a heightened level of global collaboration between nations, businesses, NGOs and citizen coalitions to accelerate that needed progress. 

But without authentic commitment to the greater good from those parties, without authentic leadership, underpinned by a commitment to principles of decency, equity, integrity, and above all – truth – we’re not going to get there (certainly not in the needed time frame). 

American democracy has long espoused these principles.  And while we’ve been far from perfect, our commitment to them as a nation was never in serious question. 

Until now. 

Our leaders are failing us, and the world is noticing.

Without authentic leadership, where the interests of the nation are placed above the interests of individuals, where we have genuine interest in collaboration for the greater good, and where we embrace facts and truths rather than denying reality, our democracy will disintegrate.    

If we can’t cooperate and collaborate for the good of the country, how can we possibly collaborate – and lead – for improving the health of people and planet – for advancing the SDGs?

On the sustainability side, we know that if we continue with business as usual – externalizing social and environmental costs through linear production systems – we will not effectively address climate change.

And there’s a parallel in governance.  If we continue with business as usual, digging in, refusing to honorably compromise, and electing leaders who remain committed to zero sum solutions, we won’t create positive change for the country, and we’ll miss the opportunity to bring other nations together for meaningful change on the SDGs.

Last January, a handful of activists for the Global Goals placed a short, powerful appeal to world leaders in the Wall Street Journal.  The open letter noted that despite the adoption of the SDGs by 193 countries in 2015, the world is in a state of emergency, and it urged world leaders to notice that:

Our climate is heating up.

Natural disasters are increasing.

Millions flee their homes.

Children suffer without vital food and healthcare.

Activists are murdered for their views.

Girls and women are refused an education and subjected to discrimination and violence.

But we still dare to hope that in 2020 you will act decisively and courageously and kickstart a Decade of Action.

We need you to act faster. 

To find the finance.  To track implementation.  To unlock radical solutions.

We are watching you.   

That letter is a useful frame.  The entire world is watching what is happening in Washington right now.

And they are not seeing any semblance of effective leadership.

Let’s expect more from our elected leaders than narcissism, obstruction, obfuscation, and toeing the Party line.

Let’s commit to working together to restore effective governance to preserve our democracy, so that we can in turn focus on leading collaborative global efforts to address the pressing social and environmental challenges embodied in the SDGs.

The American people, the citizens of the world, and the planet deserve much better from us – and we’re capable of delivering.