The Era of Behavior Demands Principled Sustainability

The Era of Behavior Demands Principled Sustainability

Tomorrow, I’ll be addressing chief executives from around the world at the U.N. Global Compact’s triennial Leaders Summit in New York.

In addition to my remarks, I look forward to leading a discussion with Fu Chengyu, Chairman
of Sinopec Group; Robert Collymore, Chief Executive Officer
of SafariCom Limited; Jacqueline Novogratz, Chief Executive Officer of Acumen; Paul Polman, Chief Executive Officer
 of Unilever; and Güler Sabanci, Chairperson 
of Sabanci Holding.

There, my fellow Compact members—under the leadership of Executive Director Georg Kell—will unveil a new global architecture for the private sector on sustainability and outline a path for business to contribute to global priorities and the public good.

It’s been 5 years since the global crisis in capitalism, and we’re still trying to make sense of what capitalism is and how to define business’ proper role in today’s interdependent society. I’ll bet even this room of business leaders, though, won’t know that the most-searched word in Webster’s Online Dictionary last year was “capitalism.”

They will, however, agree that business must play a role in the solution to the deep sustainability challenges—in all their many forms—that face us. Whenever confronted by such challenges, I often find it useful to go back before we go forward.

I’ll remind them that Adam Smith was not an economist—he was chairman of the Moral Philosophy Department at Glasgow University. Indeed, he didn’t even use the word capitalism. He did, however, understand that sustainable prosperity requires a moral framework of values.

That is an idea that has been lost, or in some cases even denied, in recent years. But the manifestation of that has been seen less in immorality than in something more toxic: amorality. The entire dynamic calls to mind The Godfather,with that famous line: “It’s only business. It’s not personal.”

The real-world problem is that if it’s “just business,” then thinking that greed is good is actually quite rational, and a declaration that something is “too big to fail” is okay. But such constructs are not enough to handle our modern reality of extreme volatility and multiple crises. In order to really succeed, we need common values and a common mission.

Separation of life’s spheres can no longer work in a world that has gone from connected to interconnected to morally interdependent. Today, in so many ways, we rise and fall together. A vegetable vendor in Tunisia sparks a revolution. A banker single-handedly loses two billion dollars, triggering a global financial meltdown. And Martha Payne, a nine-year-old in Scotland, posts about her school system’s unhealthy food, endures attempts at censorship from education officials, and ultimately spawns a diet-reform movement throughout the U.K. with money even raised for hungry children in Malawi.

Our response to this interdependent reality must be to embrace and forge healthy interdependencies. My fellow members of the U.N. Global Compact, began to realize this vision in creating this institution 10 years ago.

Healthy interdependencies, at their core, are not that complicated. They’re about how we treat each other. They’re about behavior that’s based in values that animate and sustain human relationships.

The path ahead is not about scaling our perfectly good programs of recycling or bike racks. Think of those as “apps.” We all know what matters most is the operating system – and that’s built by scaling sustainable values – which are moral, human values – and translating them into meaningful corporate practices, visionary leadership behaviors, and mindful governance practices. What I’m talking about is fundamentally how we operate as organizational creatures – creating a human operating system.

The shift from tinkering with apps to reprogramming our operating system has huge implications. Business has systematized everything—GRC, CRM, HRIS, ERP. But creating a human operating system is the next and most significant challenge. It’s big work, and it’s what will bring us true sustainability.

With spheres no longer separate, sustainability is business. It’s no longer just about “sustainable principles.” It’s also about “principled sustainability.”

I’m eager to share this vision and interact with the attendees. For those who not be able to attend the event, I hope you’ll be able to join us via the webcast:

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