David Grayson of Cranfield University distils the lessons of his latest book on the future of business leadership, and explains why the SDGs should force companies to rethink their business models

Unprecedented revolutions affecting markets, technology, demographics, development and values are changing the world as we know it at an extraordinary speed. With mounting pressure from consumers, employees, investors and activists; a perceived failure of moral leadership from the public sector; and with the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals little more than a decade away, the private sector must rethink what it means to do business.

In our new book ‘All In – The Future of Business Leadership’, Chris Coulter, Mark Lee and I argue that for companies to have a fighting chance of enduring success, they can no longer be half-hearted or tentative about sustainability.

They have to go all in to secure long-term commercial success. Business leaders must proactively engage with society and embrace circular economy models to survive and thrive.

Going all in makes a business more resilient to future shocks

Going all in requires a leadership framework comprising of five essential attributes of high-impact corporate sustainability leadership. These are:

Purpose – having a societal purpose beyond profit maximization that galvanizes the organization to make a substantive positive difference in the world, and which describes how the business creates value both for business and society (eg Nestlé, Tesla)

Plan – a comprehensive plan to embed sustainability throughout the business (Unilever, Marks & Spencer)

Culture – an innovative, empowering, open and accountable culture which enables all other attributes (Nike, Natura)

Collaboration – the skill and will to identify and undertake collaboration in support of the purpose and plan (Walmart, IKEA through coalitions like the Consumer Goods Forum and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition)

And finally, Advocacy – an advocacy approach characterized by speaking up and speaking out for pro¬ sustainable development policies, norms and behaviours and broader systemic change (Interface, Patagonia).

Nike has been a pioneer in creating an open and accountable culture. (Credit: Nike)

These attributes are based on the perspectives of thousands of experts globally as collected via the annual GlobeScan/SustainAbility Leaders Survey – over two decades and insights from dozens of interviews with Chairs, CEOs and Chief Sustainability Officers explaining how they have gained recognition, created value and boosted resiliency based on their corporate sustainability leadership. These include leaders from pioneering global companies, such as 3M, Google, GE, Huawei, IKEA, Interface, Nike, Patagonia, Tata, Toyota and Unilever. In the past, it might have been sufficient for businesses to have just one or two of these attributes. Now businesses need them all.

‘All In’ provides corporate leaders with the inspiration and guidance they need to fully embrace the opportunities and challenges of sustainability leadership. It is essential for businesses that aspire to continue into the indefinite future. It is a roadmap for the tens of thousands of businesses globally who are yet to embrace sustainability as part of their corporate strategy and adopt an approach to leadership which will be critical to their future business success, and ensure a better world for all.

Today’s multinationals ... have the ability and responsibility to drive greater sustainability across markets and society

Going all in makes a business more resilient to future shocks because it has a better grasp of the changing external environment. It makes a business better able to attract, retain and get the best out of employees, business partners and suppliers. It makes the business more attractive to patient, long-term investors. It provides the business more opportunity to shape the future thanks to better influence and access to governments and civil society. It creates more hunger for better platforms to innovate successfully. In short, going all in is not a guarantee that a business will continue into the indefinite future but it creates the optimum conditions for doing so.

Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, implementing the Paris Climate Agreement and ensuring that 9-10 billion people will be able to live reasonably well within the constraints of one planet by mid-century, needs commitment from governments, civil society, academia and other actors.

Business leadership in sustainable development, however, is central to developing and maintaining the kind of markets and economies that the environment and society need to thrive. Today’s multinational businesses have unparalleled scale and reach, touching thousands of suppliers and billions of consumers across hundreds of countries. They are the most global set of actors in existence, with both the ability and responsibility to drive greater sustainability across markets and society.

David Grayson CBE is Emeritus Professor of Corporate Responsibility at the Cranfield School of Management, Cranfield University, and a member of Ethical Corporation’s advisory board.

“All In – The Future of Business Leadership” by David Grayson, Chris Coulter and Mark Lee, is published by Routledge. A free, downloadable ‘All In’ checklist can be accessed at www.AllInBook.net

Main picture credit: Konstantin Chagin/Shutterstock


SDGs  corporate sustainability  Unilever  M&S  Patagonia  circular economy 

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