INTOUCH : When growth is unsustainable

The ethos currently driving business is not sustainable and business leaders have to stop acting like adolescents in denial. That’s the unequivocal message from world-renowned sporting and business coach Sir John Whitmore.
“I would say that any leader who still believes in the holy grail of growth is irresponsible. They’re living in myth – living in the past,” he says. “While some are talking about triple bottom line reporting – profits, people, planet – decision making is still primarily made on profit. But we are moving into state, environmentally, where decisions are going to have to be made on the planet ahead of people and profit.”
Executive chair of UK-based Performance Consultants and leading figure in the international coaching community, Whitmore was in New Zealand recently to talk to delegates at the International Leaders in Sport conference about values-based leadership and how to recognise change as opportunity.
Leaders have to evolve, he says, because the context within which business takes place is changing very fast.
“Instant communication changes things; globalisation changes things; environmental responsibility hugely changes things. There is also the present insecurity around economic fragility that is impacting on business and on leaders.
“So what are the qualities business leaders need to be able to cope with these changes? Many are still too focused on this month’s bottom line to look over their VDUs to see the world out there is changing.”
At present, he says the collective needs and objectives of humanity are being reshaped faster than ungainly corporates can change course and it’s the smaller, more agile and entrepreneurial businesses that are taking the lead. Present economic insecurity is even prompting some business leaders to retrench back into older more hierarchical and autocratic behaviour patterns at time when there is actually greater demand for personal choice and self responsibility, he says.
Even though Whitmore has tough wake-up call for business leaders, he is welcomed by many because they recognise something has to change.
“What I’m doing is working with them to explore where they need to go next – to expand their vision and values so they are better able to cope with this emerging new world.”
It is world, he says, that has to recognise the essential dichotomy between consumerism and sustainability.
“Consumerism is about more and more; sustainability is about less and less, and sustainability will win out because nature is more powerful than human beings. We will get to point where more and more just won’t be possible.”
Although he acknowledges that consumerism is to some extent the lifeblood of capitalism, Whitmore describes it as an illness.
“To me it is adolescent behaviour and I think that business in the way it is currently structured is quite tribal, very competitive. And in the state of the world at the moment what we need is more
collaboration.”
It’s about moving back from reductionist thinking into realisation that everything is interconnected – and that’s an evolution that is already under way, says Whitmore.
“I think over time we as human beings are growing beyond the ‘me me me’ of very basic capitalism to recognition of the need for more inclusiveness. Individuals are beginning to see their own holy grails of the past are no longer working and the more enlightened business people are themselves saying they don’t have to wait for society to evolve – they can create their own evolution and achieve greater clarity about their values and vision.”
As to the cry that business viability can’t be sacrificed on the altar of environmental sustainability, Whitmore says the question really is – which is more important?
“Let’s get this in proportion. Business is only another game – it’s not the be-all and end-all of everything. When we look at society over long period of time, the structure and methods of exchanging goods and services with each other change. In 100 years time they might be quite different. This is passing phase and we have to look beyond how the game is played today because, as individuals and as society, we are still evolving.”

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