Green Leadership -- What Is It?

The first of two parts.

Politically motivated politicians continue denying man-made climate change and it's devastating harm. They reject the need for alternative energy sources that could stem the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. They gasp when hearing the word "sustainability." They block efforts to deal with these or other significant challenges. Nevertheless, many businesses and even the military are seeking solutions to these threats to our economy, way of life, and our national security.

But creating successful, sustainable practices and policies, and the long-term vision they require is complex. The above challenges are interwoven with vested interests of those seeking deregulation or new tax laws that enables continued profit for themselves, at the expense of the larger society. Investment in infrastructure or human capital is ignored.

Positive solutions call for "green leadership." In business, successful, sustainable practices rest upon an internal foundation, a mindset of emotional and mental perspectives, values and capacities. This mindset helps create sustainable, growth-oriented practices that contribute to long-term security and development for all.

In this post I describe what a green leadership mindset consists of. Part 2 describes what it looks like in practice, and how leaders can learn to build it.

Business and Military Organizations Embrace Reality

To better understand the rise of green leadership, consider that climate change is recognized and being addressed by many decision-makers, despite the deniers. For example, The Economist and others recently focused on the melting Arctic, the sea level rise and ways to deal with long-term implications. Companies research and invest in alternative energy technologies, and receive federal support, though the latter is opposed by fossil fuel-funded politicians, including Mitt Romney, who has called wind and solar power "...two of the most ballyhooed forms of alternative energy." Nevertheless, research abounds. Companies continue to explore innovations for increasing solar energy efficiency, for example.

The military recognizes the national security threat of climate change. A study by blue-ribbon panel of military leaders found it could affect Americans at home, impact U.S. military operations, and heighten global tensions. Consequences like famine, drought, and destructive weather raise new threats to our security -- whether at home or abroad. Scientific American recently reported that the Pentagon, seeing liabilities from global warming, is reducing the armed forces greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for climate impacts.

Many in the business world recognize the need for long-term sustainability, and seek collaboration around useful strategies. Ceres, a leading organization of business leaders, investors, public interest groups, policymakers and other economic players describes efforts to "incorporate long-term environmental and social risks instead of merely relying on short-term returns as a measure of economic health." Groups seek sustainable solutions to "reduce carbon emissions and other pollutants, protect vital natural resources like water supplies, ensure safe and just working conditions for employees and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels while transitioning to a clean energy economy."

What Is A Green Business Mentality?

The above is a very broad mission. Moreover, it's part of growing interest in sustainable investing, social entrepreneurialism, and finding business opportunities through addressing social problems. It's also linked with rising interest in jobs with social impact, among younger workers. The latter is part of changing features of today's workforce, not just within the millennial generation. For example, visible damage from the dysfunction of psychologically unhealthy management practices, and rising demand for transparent practices are also features of today's workplace.

All of the above calls for green leadership. Its foundation is a personal, internal mindset, one that leads to development and innovation, long-term vision and sustainable practices within the organization itself. And, that practices social responsibility towards stakeholders and the larger society. Its core is internal reflection and self-knowledge, which strengthens awareness of interconnection, increases mastery of stress, and stimulates broad perspectives for understanding problems and unpredictable challenges. Some elements include:

Self-examination and self-reflection regarding values and leadership behavior. A commitment to personal development, away from values or beliefs that reinforce narrow self-interest -- whether for personal power, career goals or financial reward. Instead, it's a shift towards a mentality of service to a larger purpose, via the product or service; embracing the link between societal and business success; and a sense of responsibility to enhance all lives through successful business activity.

Research confirms that self-reflection -- tuning in to your inner life -- is critical for positive, healthy development. Scott Keller, a director at McKinsey & Company, described the significance of overcoming self-interest and delusion in the Harvard Business Review. He emphasized the need for openness to personal growth and development, writing that "deep down, (leaders) do not believe that it is they who need to change..." and that "that the real knowing what to change at a personal level."

Building empathy and compassion. Related to self-examination is recognizing that empathy and compassion are qualities of a developed, mature mind, resilient to stress, able to manage internal conflicts and maintain well-being. Much research shows that these capacities are strengths, not weaknesses to overcome. Moreover, studies find that you can grow them with conscious focus and effort. They enhance a sense of interconnectedness of all lives. The emotionally detached, un-empathic person is unable to creating wise actions that ensure positive lives, security and long-term success -- whether at work or in personal life. One of Google's earliest executives, Chade-Meng Tan, teaches a popular course for Google employees that helps build such qualities of inner life. It has demonstrable, positive benefits for success and wellbeing.

Working with changing social attitudes and workers' needs. These directly impact career goals and creative innovation. One aspect is a movement away from money or appearance of success as the prime objective; and towards the product or service itself. A good illustration of this is Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's statement that "We don't build services to make money; we make money to build better services."

Similarly, Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen was asked about the significance of Foursquare's co-founder, Dennis Crowley, who walked into a press event in athletic wear and eating a banana. Andreessen replied that within this mentality, an idea "...either works or doesn't work, no matter how good of a salesman you are." He added that people with this perspective "...don't care about the surface appearance, but they view attempts to kind of be fake on the surface as fundamentally dishonest."

Such observations coincide with a comment Zuckerberg made about those who don't grasp "...the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.'' Andreessen pointed out that some "...can't conceive of a world where social status or getting laid or, for that matter, doing drugs, is not the most important thing."

The shift in attitudes and behavior about work and management joins with movement towards greater transparency; towards being able to work with and flow with constant change, uncertainty and diversity -- and enjoy it, even. It also generates desire for a healthy physical and psychological work environment.

The green leadership orientation embraces the above ideas, values, and emotional awareness. It seeks evidence-based information about effective strategies for long-term viability. The green leader feels a personal commitment to sustainable practices, but in addition also wants to engage business with finding solutions to social and economic challenges -- solutions that are financially profitable, have real impact on people's lives ... and are also fun.

All are part of an integrated whole. That's the green business mindset. In the next post: How green leaders carry out these practices, and how green leadership can be taught.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at To learn more about him, click here.