Health and Healthcare Systems

How to build sustainable business leadership in a post-COVID world

People wearing protective face masks walk past office buildings in Lujiazui financial district in Pudong, in Shanghai, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, China June 4, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song - RC2F2H9XOJG3

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 will require a radical rethink on how board and c-suite leaders are selected. Image: REUTERS/Aly Song

Clarke Murphy
President and Chief Executive Officer, Russell Reynolds Associates Inc.
Lise Kingo
Chief Executive Officer, United Nations Global Compact
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Health and Healthcare Systems?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Corporate Governance is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Corporate Governance

  • COVID-19 will revolutionize how the world works, from healthcare to remote working.
  • It's vital businesses allow themselves to operate and evolve sustainably for the resilience of our planet.

The COVID-19 pandemic will forever change how successful businesses operate and grow. The legitimacy of major commercial organisations—and the people that lead them—is being questioned in new and fundamental ways. There is now an urgent need for a new model of business leader: one that makes the long-term sustainability and resilience of our world a top priority.

Now and in the future, successful businesses will be those that meet the needs of as many people as possible, utilize as few resources as possible and engage and are responsive to as many stakeholders as possible. This is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do. Business simply cannot thrive in a world of poverty, inequality, unrest and environmental stress.

Have you read?

Over recent years, we have seen conversations about sustainable business grow louder. But this has not always translated into action on the ground. Today there exists an unfortunate gap between rhetoric and reality. Analysis by the United Nations Global Compact shows that while 92% of CEOs believe integration of sustainability will be important to the future success of their businesses, only 48% say they are actually implementing sustainability in their operations.

At the same time, what organizations value or require when they select new leaders has big consequences for organizational strategy and culture. Despite changing stakeholder expectations, sustainability is not widely embedded in leadership expectations or culture. Analysis by Russell Reynolds Associates found that in only 4% of executive and non-executive role specifications was sustainability experience or mindset an actual requirement. This must change if we are to make the exponential change and innovation needed to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis stronger and make real progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

It is now time to radically rethink how CEOs and board leaders are selected, with more emphasis on finding sustainable leaders who will drive change on the ground. How can you identify these leaders?

Our analysis of 55 sustainability pioneers—CEOs and board members with a track record of integrating sustainability into business strategy—reveals the attributes that transform a leader into a sustainable leader. It reveals that sustainable leaders combine a sustainable mindset—a purpose-driven belief that business is not a commercial activity divorced from the wider societal and environmental context in which it operates—with four differentiating leadership attributes:

  • Multi-level systems thinking—They incorporate the interplay of business, societal and environmental systems and drive decisions that turn sustainability into a competitive advantage.
  • Stakeholder influence—They do not seek to manage stakeholders, rather they actively include them in defining and actioning decisions.
  • Disruptive innovation—They possess the courage to challenge traditional approaches and cut through bureaucracy to drive the disruptive innovation needed to do away with the profitability-sustainability trade-off.
  • Long-term activation—They do not simply have an orientation towards the long term, they set bold sustainability goals and rigorously drive concerted action in their pursuit.

Expectations of CEOs, executives and board members are changing. If the leaders we studied have made one thing abundantly clear it is that sustainability is a leadership issue and imperative to long-term success. CEOs and boards need to be ambitious in driving a new vision for leadership. And they need to develop and foster sustainable leaders in their ranks. This is not a matter of hiring a single individual to own sustainability. The systemic challenges the world faces today mean that sustainable leadership cannot be confined to a small minority; companies must instead cultivate sustainable leadership at all levels. This is not something that can wait. It is not a conversation for tomorrow, it is a conversation for today.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Health and Healthcare SystemsSustainable DevelopmentStakeholder Capitalism
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Gender and health equity will only come with universal access to eye health – here's why

Dr. Princess Ifeoma Ike

May 24, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum