Sustainable business leadership: Goodbye Ray Anderson

Sustainable business lacks many business heroes. CEOs are hard to admire consistently.

The complexity of big global business means its easy to slip from hero to zero pretty quickly.

The bosses we can admire consistently tend to be those in smaller companies who stick around longer.

Alessandro Carlucci, CEO of Natura is one.

Jeff Swartz, Timberland boss is another.

There are other well-trodden and well-known examples.

The NGO movement too, has a patchy record on leadership that encourages business sustainability. There are some leading figures, but a recent dip in form by most big campaign groups means leadership lags there too.

Ray Anderson sat firmly at the top of the tree as a business leader we could all take inspiration from. I won’t go into the details of his achievements here. Others have done that.

His death on August 8th leaves a leadership gulf in the sustainable business world.

I only met him one, for about eight minutes, in an empty conference room in Toronto, back in 2008 for an interview. (I’ll post a link to the podcast when I can find it)

He struck me as a real gentleman, in the old school sense. More than that, he knew just how to capture the imagination and put his thoughts and ambitions into your memory better than just about anyone I have ever met.

His diction was slow, deliberate and rationed. Not a word wasted, and not an important phrase, based on evidence, left unsaid.

Given his length of service to his company, and unswerving humility, ambition and drive, he’s been an inspiration to us all on the environment for longer than I’ve been working in the field.

His counterpart on human rights, Sir Geoffrey Chandler, was for me his equivalent on the social side of business.

Ray Anderson will be sorely missed. Luckily for Interface, the current CEO, Dan Hendrix, will continue to inspire the company Ray created, of that I have no doubt.

Here’s a podcast I taped with Dan back in June this year. Listen and you’ll hear what I mean.

We published an essay taken from Ray Anderson’s last book recently. You can read it here.

In 2010 he was nominated by our annual awards judges as the man most deserving of our lifetime achievement award.

This week, Mallen Baker wrote an excellent blog post about Ray’s impact. That’s here.

John Elkington’s take on Ray and his impact can be found here.

Here’s a TED video where he talks about just what’s possible if a leader puts his/her mind to it.

Ray Anderson will be sorely missed. I am sure Inteface will honour his memory.

My hope is that we’ll find other, equally values-driven CEOs to take his place in the coming years.

The idea of sustainable business as a zero-sum game is changing slowly.

Finding and celebrating a few more high profile bosses who emulate Ray Anderson will help that accelerate, if they can last more than four years in large listed companies.

Until that happens, we’ll continue to put the smaller-firm CEOs we can find on the higher pedestal they deserve.

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