The Power of One: Leadership and Corporate Sustainability

Hand holding light bulb in front of global show the world's consumption with icons energy sources for renewable, sustainable development. Ecology concept. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.

By Judith L. Walls

What kind of leader does it take to make a positive change? What traits set these leaders apart? In this article, the author presents their research highlighting the kind of leaders that can move companies towards a better social and environmental performance.


Examples of positive leadership are all around us. But we rarely see them. Instead, public interest gravitates towards CEO’s abusing their positions of power: everything from fraudulent accounting practices (Jeff Skilling at Enron) and using company money to buy basketball tickets (Aubrey McClendon at Chesapeake Energy) to throwing a second wife a $2 million birthday bash, dubbed the “Roman Orgy” (Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco). It’s no wonder then that we get hung up on the dark side of leadership.1

Yet, every day, people in powerful positions are working to make the world a better place. And their passion to do so can have long-lasting benefits to companies and society. One of the most famous examples is Ray Anderson, late CEO of carpet maker InterfaceFLOR, whose “spear in the chest” moment ignited the drive towards a company with zero negative impact on the natural environment by 2020. In Europe, CEOs are trailblazing strategies to address climate change, actively combatting it by using renewable sources of energy.2 Leaders like Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, have even gone as far as to scrap quarterly reporting in favour of pursuing long-term goals like achieving 100% sustainable agricultural practices by 2020.3

But, what kind of leader does it take to make a positive change? What traits set these leaders apart? This is a question that my co-authors and I have been studying over the last five years, looking at the roles that CEOs and board directors play in moving companies towards better social and environmental performance. Collectively, our research shows that some individual background traits (like something as simple as having experiences in nature) matter in doing good. Other background traits hinder social and environmental progress. The good news is that research can help us identify the right kinds of leaders who can and do step up to tackle society’s toughest environmental challenges like climate change, habitat destruction, or water scarcity. 


Experience is Power

Our first finding is that experience is power. When we have enough experience, we attain the power that comes with being an expert. And experts are special: they can notice things others cannot, they can take advantage of unexpected opportunities, they can wade more easily through ambiguity and complexity, and they make sense of all that information to others.4,5 For this reason, experts have the ability to influence others around them. In other words, they have the power to create change.

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This is why environmental experience is so important when it comes to leaders and corporate sustainability. Experience with environmental issues, whether gained through life or a former job, affects how we think about topics like sustainability. Experience going as far back as our childhood can affect the level of commitment we have to protecting the natural environment.6 Those kinds of experiences can come from being in a family or having friends that live off the land, doing outdoor activities, going hiking, engaging in environmental volunteering activities, or seeing habitat destructed or polluted. That experience can also come from grade school activities or field trips, inspiring teachers, or later on through formal education or vocation.

Examples of positive leadership are all around us. But we rarely see them. Instead, public interest gravitates towards CEO’s abusing their positions of power. It’s no wonder then that we get hung up on the dark side of leadership.

In a corporate context, that experience may come from prior jobs, board appointments, or extra-corporate activities that deal with environmental topics. For example, Francesco Starace, who became the CEO of Enel Group in 2014, brought with him six years of environmental experience running Enel Green Power. More recently, he joined the board of the UN Global Compact. Since becoming the CEO of the Enel Group, Starace has been mainstreaming green energy into the group’s strategy. Similarly, when Emmanuel Faber became CEO of Danone in 2014, he took the company’s sustainability strategy to a whole new level that includes Danone becoming a Certified B Corp by 2030. As early as 2005, Faber gained experience in social projects in Bangladesh and was part of an Action Tank on “Poverty and Business” in 2010. These CEOs’ experiences are not neglible.

Regardless of its origin, experience with environmental activities act as a filter through which leaders process information and make decisions. In research with Andrew Hoffman,7  we found that the more environmental experience leaders have, the more likely they are to consider the environmental impact of their businesses. In fact, if they have enough environmental experience, leaders can direct their companies to become positive outliers and have better environmental performance than their immediate peers in the industry. More specifically, we found that companies with board members who have environmental experience based on their past employment or board positions, environmental awards or honours, or engagement in environmental activities such as being part of a not-for-profit organisation tended to be above the norm in environmental performance.

Similarly, in research with Pascual Berrone,8  we found that CEOs with this kind of environmental expertise can significantly reduce a company’s environmental footprint. Leaders who have environmental experience can exert influence over their followers to attend to sustainability because they understand the issues at hand and know how to deal with them. Environmental expert CEOs are also able to sway their companies to be even more sustainable when they additionally have other forms of influence over the board, by holding the Chair position, being the company founder, or owning a large proportion of the company’s shares. These attributes allow expert CEOs to influence the very top of the organisation.

If they have enough environmental experience, leaders can direct their companies to become positive outliers and have better environmental performance than their immediate peers in the industry.

Childhood experience also matters. In a study with Eunice Ng and Gana Wingard,9 we looked at how Mongolian mining managers make decisions about environmental sustainability and found that childhood experiences form an important part in their attitudes towards sustainability. In Mongolia, values and beliefs towards the natural environment are passed down from parents and grandparents, through folklore and religion, and the cultural lifestyle of an historically nomadic people whose identities are tied to the land. These experiences tend to generate enormous tension within managers who later find themselves digging up pristine landscapes and polluting the environment. As a result, many of these managers try to compensate psychologically by doing what they can about sustainability either in their personal or professional lives.


Other Background Matters

Apart from environmental experience, there are other characteristics of leaders that improve companies’ environmental actions. In research with Ben Lewis and Glen Dowell, we found that both educational background and position tenure is relevant.10 CEOs with MBA degrees are more likely to voluntarily disclose information about the company’s environmental performance. But the opposite is true for CEOs with law degrees. This finding leads us to hypothesise that CEOs with MBAs are better at spotting the win-win opportunities of engaging in sustainability activities, whereas CEOs with law backgrounds view voluntary disclosure as a risky strategy that exposes a company to greater scrutiny or litigation.

Newly appointed CEOs, who have been in their position for less than two years, are also more prone to voluntary disclosure of environmental information as they have more freedom and willingness to experiment with new strategies. Ongoing work with Shih-Chi Chiu suggests that new CEOs re-assess the current situation of their company more readily than longer-tenured CEOs and review the needs of environmental and social stakeholders. As a result, new CEOs pay more attention to social and environmental stakeholder demands than CEOs with longer tenure who have a tendency to maintain the status quo. Whether those new CEOs are promoted from within the firm or hired from the outside doesn’t matter.

In other cases, certain characteristics of leaders can hinder companies’ efforts to become more sustainable. In recent work with Bjoern Mitzinneck and Glen Dowell, we consider why some corporate boards remain male-centric, lacking any women directors. Early results show that individual characteristics of board members (such as age) play a role. A board with older generation directors is less likely to be open to new social trends, such as gender equality. This same project also looks at how conservative or liberal the leaders of the company are and shows that companies headquartered in a more conservative location are less likely to have women directors. Directors with these qualities have grown up in eras and cultures with norms that are more patriarchal, and therefore more likely to maintain all-male boards.


When are Individual Traits Not Enough?

The backgrounds of leaders, whether derived through childhood or professional experiences, education, or simply being a fresh set of eyes, only partially explain why CEOs and board directors care about sustainability. Other factors, such as leadership styles11 and a strong moral identity12 are also important. But research still has a long way to go to understand what drives, and what hinders, leaders to do good.

The notion that companies can actually make the world a better place is counter-intuitive for many. And the notion that leadership can make a difference is powerful for those who can accept that fact.

Leaders can only influence their firms’ strategies to a certain extent. Companies face many other pressures that affect sustainability, such as conflicting demands from stakeholders and shareholders, the financial health of the company, and so on. Further, organisations are large and complex and therefore need more than a single driver to steer their various components away from a path of inertia and in new directions. There are also larger forces at play, such as the public’s mistrust of experts and the science around sustainability.13 These sociological factors affect how much change leaders can enact.


If (the Right) Leaders Step Up, There is Hope

The notion that companies can actually make the world a better place is counter-intuitive for many. And the notion that leadership can make a difference is powerful for those who can accept that fact. So powerful, in fact, that a new field of research has emerged that looks at how leaders can build high performing organisations that have a positive impact on society and the environment.14 Intuitively, we sense that the right kind of leadership is important for creating corporate outcomes that maintain the financial bottom line and improve social responsibility and environmental stewardship. There is hope that we may yet be able to tackle issues such as climate change because business has to be part of the solution. With the right kinds of leaders, we can see companies stepping up.


About the Author

Judith L. Walls is an Assistant Professor at Nanyang Business School (NBS) and a Faculty Affiliate at the Asian School of the Environment at NTU Singapore. She is an associate director at the Centre for Business Sustainability at NBS. Her research focusses on corporate governance and sustainability, with a particular emphasis on businesses and land use. She teaches on corporate environmental and social sustainability strategies at undergraduate and graduate levels.


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13. Kennedy, B. & Funk, C. (2016). “Many Americans are skeptical about scientific research on climate and GM foods” Pew Research Center. December 5, 2016. Accessed online:

14. Cameron, K., Dutton, J. & Wuinn, R.E. (2003). Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations for a New Discipline. Berrett-Koehler: San Francisco.


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