The Sustainability Mindset of Executives: Four Views


After working with scores of corporations and executive leaders over the past twenty years on matters relating to business and sustainability, I have come to the conclusion that there are fundamentally four distinctive mindsets of executives when it comes to this challenge: Deniers, Avoiders, Camouflagers, and Transformers. Not surprisingly, the sustainability strategy (or lack of one) in any given company is driven by the prevailing mindsets. Allow me to describe them for each type:

Deniers are executives who either refuse to face facts or willfully deny the existence of a problem despite the existence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Whether the issue is climate change, poverty, inequity, or loss of biodiversity, deniers consistently discount scientific evidence as “biased” or align themselves with a fringe minority of “experts” who expound the opposing view. For deniers, climate change is a hoax and poverty is due to laziness or lack of aptitude. Context and circumstance matter little to deniers. Belief is absolute, not unlike religious dogma. For those working in companies led by Deniers, it is virtually impossible to be an effective sustainability change agent since these concerns are literally dismissed out of hand by senior leadership.

Avoiders are executives who may actually understand the social and environmental challenges we face, but either postpone serious consideration or seek to avoid engagement of the issues in the company altogether. The classic Avoider is in his or her early 60s or only 2-3 years away from retirement or being packaged out with a large financial windfall. Their primary motivation is selfish–to “kick the can down the road” so that they don’t have to invest the time and emotional energy in the few years they have remaining. For the Avoider, the serious challenges of global sustainability can wait, so they become someone else’s problem. Patience is required if one seeks to be a change agent or sustainability champion in a company led largely by Avoiders.

Camouflagers are executives who wrap themselves and their companies in the jargon of sustainability but fail to take decisive action or launch initiatives that would fundamentally alter their strategic path.They take on the “protective coloration” of sustainability by investing in incremental initiatives that continuously improve existing operations and strategies. Camouflagers want their cake and eat it to: external validation for their progressive stance but little in the way of strategic risk or change. Companies led by Camouflagers typically publish elaborate Sustainability Reports with lots of charts and graphs showing how eco-efficiency and corporate responsibility have reduced emissions, lowered costs, or built brand image. Those seeking to become engaged in sustainability in companies led by Camouflagers had best get their Six Sigma Black Belt or demonstrate a passion for corporate volunteerism.

Finally, Transformers are executives who are willing and able to stake out a new direction for their companies–one which will disrupt current industry structure and “leapfrog” toward a more sustainable world. Transformers are not afraid to take unpopular positions within the current industry; they often withdraw from industry associations, defund lobbying designed to preserve the status quo, and make preemptive investments that threaten to unseat industry incumbents. Not satisfied with incremental improvement, Transformers seek creative destruction. For those really interested in using the power of business to drive us toward a more environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive world, companies led by Transformers are the place to be.

How does your company stack up?

Try the following exercise: Assign each one of the senior executives on the leadership team to one of the above four categories. Where is the center of gravity of the mindsets of your senior executive team when it comes to sustainability leadership? How does this relate to your own personal profile (be honest with yourself)? Make career decisions accordingly. Alas, our planet has no choice.

Prof. Hart is one of the founders of Emergent Institute, Bangalore (www. and Enterprise for a Sustainable World (


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