Ernst Ligteringen's sudden and unexpected death on June 15th was a devastating shock for me and my colleagues at GRI, the sustainability non-profit that Ernst led for more than 12 years.
My heart goes out to Ernst’s wife Maria Jose, his children and his grandchildren, who are bearing the brunt of this tragedy.
Exactly one week before his death, on June 8th, Ernst visited the GRI Secretariat in Amsterdam - the house that he built, during his tenure as Chief Executive. Though we had only had a few opportunities to chat in the six months I have led GRI, we had candid conversations, for which I will always be grateful. In our last meeting, Ernst spoke about how the practice of sustainability reporting needs to evolve to connect better with its ultimate goal of advancing sustainable development. He sounded a warning about how corporate sustainability reporting had become too complex and fragmented. Ernst also gave me advice about how GRI and other sustainability reporting frameworks needed to become more agile, collaborative and proactive.
Good advice indeed, but the thing I will remember most about Ernst is how much of a gentleman he was. Here he was, sitting in his old office (but now on the other side of the desk) and he was the epitome of grace and humility. He listened intently when I spoke about the challenges and opportunities I see with GRI today. He offered his perspective but invited me to come to my own conclusions about the best way to lead this organization.
Ernst transformed GRI into a globally respected and self-sufficient organization. When he was appointed Chief Executive back in 2002, he led 12 people in a small office in Amsterdam. While they had global aspirations, it wasn’t at all clear that this small group was going to achieve their lofty goals. Under Ernst’s leadership, GRI established itself as the world’s most widely used sustainability reporting standard. Because of his leadership, thousands of organizations around the world have reported their sustainability impacts. And, as a result, countless people have been helped and sustainability practices have improved throughout the global economy.
Early on, Ernst recognized that the practice of sustainability reporting would need to constantly evolve to meet increased stakeholder expectations and the maturing practice of corporate responsibility. He was an innovator and he not only stayed abreast of this evolution, he led it. He introduced the GRI Organizational Stakeholder Program (now the GRI GOLD Community). He helped launch the International Integrated Reporting Council. Ernst was a pioneer in the practice of sustainability reporting. A practice that has changed the world for the better.
Tragedies like this are also moments for reflection. Ernst has left an enviable legacy, one that would make anyone proud. I am hopeful that this provides some measure of comfort to his family and all who knew him. He dedicated his life to doing good and making the world a better place. And Ernst did that. And he did it on a global scale.
Beyond the accomplishments is the man. In the days since his death I have heard numerous anecdotes about Ernst from my colleagues, who worked with him over the years. One thing shines through in all of these stories: Ernst was a gentleman with a kind soul. He will be missed.
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