Why true leaders make us uneasy

Creative solutions come when we are forced outside our comfort zones. The trick is to learn to force ourselves, writes John Elkington.

You know the feeling. The elevator doors are closing behind you and suddenly you are alone with someone you have long wanted to meet and influence. How to connect? I have often been encouraged to develop a 20-second elevator pitch to describe what I do, but have always refused. My counter-argument is that, if busy people insist on getting all their knowledge in 20-second sound-bites, they are unlikely to be open to the sort of deep conversations that the sustainability agenda requires. 

But, if pressed, I will say that I am like a piece of grit in the corporate oyster which, if it doesn’t get spat out immediately, can become the nucleus around which business wisdom can form – just as a pearl can in certain molluscs.

The best leaders know the future is going to be significantly different from both the past and the present. They see a key part of their role as being to push their people out of their comfort zones and into the frames of mind needed to see new landscapes of risk and opportunity.

Looking back, many senior executives I have worked with over the decades have been opened up to a wider world by a personal, painful, unexpected experience. Think of the late Ray Anderson, chief executive of carpet-makers Interface, who likened reading Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce to receiving “a spear in the chest”. Or think of the leaders of companies like oil giant Shell, sportswear brand Nike or, one of my favourites, Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk. Whether they were hit by activist campaigns, market disruptions or hurricanes, these companies and their leaders were forced to engage with a different reality.

All of this ran through my mind recently as I was waiting to speak at a leadership conference at the Swiss business school IMD, an event co-hosted by the World Environment Center and drug giant Novartis. And as I listened to executives from fast-moving consumer goods companies like Unilever and Procter & Gamble, food companies like Chiquita, Danone and Nestle and conglomerates like General Electric, it struck me that the need for epiphanies, or powerful wake-up moments, is now less urgent than it would once have been. Today, a growing number of leaders get to the same point through cold, hard business logic.

Having parachuted into business schools over several decades, I have seen a major shift in their reactions to the sustainability and social change agendas. In the past, there was massive resistance from many business school professors specialised in other areas, who were often considerably more conservative than the executives they thought they spoke for. 

But while at IMD, I heard from a professor at another business school, INSEAD, that mainstream business executives are now queuing up to join courses aimed at social innovators and entrepreneurs. IMD itself now offers a joint course with environmental charity WWF called One Planet Leaders, designed to put sustainability “at the heart of business”. The aim here is to position sustainability not just as a looming set of corporate headaches, but as a massive, interlinked series of market opportunity spaces. 

Sitting in the IMD conference centre, I kept hearing stories of leaders and “intrapreneurs” – change agents within major corporations – who had pushed themselves (and others) beyond their comfort zones. Take the fruit company Chiquita. When Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in Central America, which accounted for about 20% of the world’s banana supply, it knocked out about 70% of production. Led by its chief executive, the company, which has had a troubled history in the region, launched a number of housing projects designed to help affected communities recover.

Fine, as far as it went, but then as I took the train to Geneva airport, I read a blog on the Fast Company website which made me think that we really do need to keep pushing leaders well outside their current comfort zones and helping them do the same with those they lead and otherwise engage.

Written by Riley Gibson, chief executive of social innovation company Napkin Labs, the blog looks at the key role of discomfort in driving the evolution of creative solutions. It defines “creativity” as “the ability to solve problems in an unexpected or surprising way”. And it notes that many people who are perceived as “creative” – designers, developers, writers or entrepreneurs – “don’t force ourselves regularly to solve problems that are clearly out of our areas of expertise”.  

The net result, Gibson argues, is that “we’re squandering our greatest creative resource.  With routine, people tend to get stuck in patterned forms of thought.” By contrast, creative solutions tend to come when we force our minds out of their comfort zones, challenging our assumptions.

So, short of whipping up a hurricane, how do we effectively do this for powerful people? Some imaginative companies now take senior executives on learning journeys, as British bank Barclays did recently with Leaders Quest in Kenya. At Volans, we have taken groups from places as different as China, Japan, Thailand and Canada to meet social innovators and entrepreneurs in Europe, North America and Asia.

If done well, this sort of experiential learning can have a dramatic impact on the way business people see the world. And it can also open up innovators and entrepreneurs to the possibilities of working more effectively with mainstream business to bring solutions to scale.

So maybe the thing to do in the elevator is to make that powerful person a little uncomfortable. Don’t do a sales pitch – ask them a question, a question that will unfurl slowly in their brains, like a chrysanthemum in a teapot. Greenpeace used to call this a “mind-bomb”, a simple idea that you hear almost without thinking, but which then opens the windows of your mind to a totally different world. Not a simple task, clearly, but one we must all get much better at.

John Elkington is executive chairman at Volans and non-executive director at SustainAbility. He blogs at and tweets at @volansjohn.

This article is published here as part of  Nuclear Enery and Developement Programme, which is supported by the Heinrich-Boell Foundation. 

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