Building Sustainable Legacies


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The Emperor’s Clothes

When I first heard about the fairy tale of the Emperor’s clothes, I always thought that it would take just one sufficiently innocent and courageous person to point her finger at the emperor and everybody else would automatically fall out of the magic spell that had previously had let them see an altered reality. But, today’s reality is proving me wrong. Today, we are living in this weird situation where about half of the people realize that the emperor is wearing no clothes and is pointing more or less discretely to the naked leader. The other half of the people, however, see the emperor in all of his magnificent beauty of glimmering, luscious and richly decorated clothes. They are blind-sided by the appearance of wealth and the impression of power this creates. They feel the power and they either feel frightened or encouraged by what it may bring to them. If it is not question of how many people see the emperor without clothes, then what are relevant triggers or levers that might open the eyes of those who still see him in his magic dress?

When we talk about change, we remain interestingly speculative with regards to interdependencies, causes, consequences and what are precursors, pre-conditions, enablers and levers of change. Kathy Miller has provided an enlightening response to my blog suggesting that people rather than organizations are the shapers of organizational culture. She points out – correctly so in my opinion – that culture is also shaped by the structure, size, leadership and governance of an organization. These are clearly organizational elements rather than people elements. I would like to further expand that trajectory of thought by investigating what other elements influence organizational and more particularly systemic change beyond the people and organizational related factors.

We have previously established that a variety of aspects that can be summed up as people related factors of change strongly define and influence a culture. We have also established that there are a number of organizational related aspects that impact and shape culture. In the context of the subject of climate change, Andy Hoffmann has investigated why pointing out facts has at best no impact at opening the eyes of those that deny a reality that quasi an entire community of scientists have confirmed. He concludes his assessment with the observation that arguing with facts simply results in the other side generating other (alternative?) facts that further prove the opposite point of view and thus further entrench the already existing difference. If not facts, then what?

Research suggests that in order to even get a chance at changing somebody else’s mind, we need to empathically and authentically connect with that other person. From person to person, not from role to role. And this is where things fall apart. We don’t want to personally engage, there is an inner discomfort, a resistance that creeps up and that communication shuts down. I have extensive personal experience in this and I often self-observe what happens to me when I am confronted with an opinion, a feedback or comment that goes against what I believe in. There is a physical shift inside of me, that turn my receptors from open to close, my smile from broad to narrow, and my heart from trusting to a stand-by mode. Sometimes I manage to turn the switch back on “open”. When I do, it is because I manage to re-establish first my own heart connection to my inner values and purpose, maybe to my soul, and then from that space, to re-establish a connection to the best in the other person that I had previously seen. A colleague of mine describes this as “veils” that are lifted off again that had prevented a clear vision. I pretend that most of us who have self-observed such events will be able to describe some change in our physiological disposition that can serve as a signal and hence potentially allow a reversal of the process. This however, does not work well when I enter a discussion being convinced that the other person holds a “wrong” own perspective that I happen to disagree with or question in terms of honesty of interest and intent. And this is where things get sticky.

If such mastery is required at the personal level to attempt to generate change at the systemic level, we are in for a tough ride. I am struck by the parallel to the current reality across the Atlantic. There are impressive public attempts (including from the New York Times) to influence the personal moral obligation of a high ranking US prosecutor to demand an independent investigation of the Russian intervention in the US election process which is required in order to implement the checks and balances that are in theory well in place from a governance perspective but that don’t get the traction they should. Is it possible that when organizational elements fail to generate the framework for change, that we are thrown back to the individual courage, morals and ultimately mastery which are comprised in the people dimension? If mass protests don’t work, and structural frameworks can be circumvented or be neutralized or ignored, then how are we ever going to point out what one child pointed out so naively in the fairy tale of the emperor’s clothes? Or might it be the simple accumulation of individual, structural and mass pressures that little by little fill the famous barrel until one last drop makes it overflow and thus creates the change. And it mattered very little what that last drop actually was, as long as the drips kept coming. If that were true, then a possible conclusion might ultimately be a very encouraging one. Namely, that irrespective of the immediate or estimated impact of any individual action, new policy or public engagement, what is important is to do what is right  every singly moment a day. Right from an interconnected perspective that embraces values at the individual level, interests at the organizational level and a sense of common well-being and safety at the societal, global level.

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs


COP 21: Are current events shaping long-term decisions?

Here a blog I contributed to our Transatlantic dialogue with my friend Dr. Kathy Miller. Some thoughts on why COP21 Paris climate deal might be more likely to happen after terror attacks. Hope you find this different perspective thought-provoking. I would love to know what you think!

With the COP21, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change starting at the end November in Paris, I was anticipating to dedicate my blog this month on the topic of climate change. Nobody of course anticipated the possibility of the terrorist acts in the weeks leading up to the climate conference. I reflect in this blog about the effects of major current events and how they contribute to important long-term decisions we might otherwise not have taken.

We all remember the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011 which was a result of a tsunami wave that impacted the nuclear reactors. As a result, the German and Swiss governments took the courageous and significant decisions to set an end to their usage of nuclear power as a local energy source. It is believed that the Fukushima events played a favourable role in these important decisions.

Sometimes, we are afraid that…

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Rallying for Paris starts!

The 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) will kick off next week – companies, investors and policymakers gather to urge world governments to produce a strong climate agreement coming out of Paris.

Read more about it in the November newsletter of Ceres, a non-profit organization advocating for sustainability leadership.


Imagine Corporate Governance for a Sustainable World

I was asked to speak at the Zurich-based conference organized by Frank Bold legal services entitled “Corporate Governance for a changing world”. This conference is part of a global thought leader engagement process with events in London, New York, Brussels and Zurich and aims to develop new insights for new corporate governance. I was mostly impressed by the very impressive turn-out of many of the who-is-who of Switzerland’s relevant stakeholders on the subject, featuring prominent thought leaders from business, government, academia, civil society and consulting.

Given the nature of the 4-hour brain-storming session and the Chatham rules, I am able to share only some general personal insight that particularly struck me. While the pre-reading material and preparatory questions seem to be very detail-oriented, the various speakers (me included) highlighted the need to step back and embrace first the bigger and broader picture. I had suggested that we consider corporate governance in the context of the challenge of living well on one planet, the WBCSD Vision 2050 goal. This allowed me to frame corporate activity within the “safe operating space” of OXFAM’s doughnut model which includes on one hand the outer limits of the planetary boundaries (based on work done by the Stockholm Resilience Center) and the inner limits of social foundation (based on RIO+20 work).

The echo was really interesting and rather than facilitating a one-hour plenary session, I broke our high-level group of experts into relevant topical clusters such as voluntary corporate action, responsibility of the board, stakeholder engagement, influencing the regulatory environment, the purpose of the organization, incentivizing the existing system, and shareholder responsibility. I was deeply impressed by the depth and extent of these discussions and the creativity and engagement that emerged. Interestingly, the largest group and energy emerged in the area of influencing the regulatory environment and better understanding the corporate board to influence the purpose of the corporation.

I look forward to see what happens with a handful of really creative and provocative ideas to change the landscape and use the influence of investors to entice the management of companies to take decisions in favor of society and the planet. It was such an enriching experience to contribute to such positive and creative new ideas with thought leaders from so many different sectors and industries. Well done to Frank Bold and its local partners University of St. Gallen and University of Zurich for organizing this!


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What is the role of business to contribute to a world worth living in?

House of ReligionsToday I spoke at the beautiful House of Religions in Bern, a wonderful open space for dialogue across cultures. Together with an engaged public, we discussed the decoupling of the many corporate responsibility efforts on one side and the pretty poor state of the world on the other side. The Business Sustainability Typology (BST) developed by Thomas Dyllick and me served as welcome framework for the discussion. It allowed to channel and focus the various perspectives and enabled a positive, solution-oriented nature of our discussion. The BST differentiates between three types of business sustainability and challenges organizations to fundamentally rethink their corporate strategy to become “truly sustainable”. This BST 3.0 ideal state invites business to adopt an outside-in perspective and to start by considering burning societal issues and evaluating what relevant resources and competencies they have to help solve these challenges. Or, as Peter Drucker said: “Every single social and global issue of our day is a business opportunity in disguise”.

Much time was spent considering alternatives to address and resolve the European refugees crisis and besides overcoming a defensive fear that is well present, we concluded that most urgently of all, we need a space where stakeholders discuss this problem and explore avenues of solutions. I concluded by referring to the 50+20 vision which out this responsibility squarely into the hands of public universities. With their unique convening power and the right stakeholder engagement facilitation (see the collaboratory solution), universities and also business schools can create the space to ensure that we start the dialogue now about how to integrate large numbers of immigrants into a Europe that has just become a new entity we need to redefine and embrace pro-actively.

On my way home, I have embraced my little part of an action: I will mobilize relevant stakeholders of European business school to issue a Call of Action for b-school to provide immediate and non-bureaucratic scholarships to refugees stranded in Europe, irrespective of their visa situation. And I am considering housing such a student at my place when Business School Lausanne will accept such students as early as next February. Obviously, I feel inspired! Thanks for a great afternoon.