Leaders as Activists

Activism is a decision to make positive change, as is leadership.

“If you get to the essence of what an activist is, you say this is somebody who looks at the situation around the world and thinks about that situation. There’s something wrong, there’s something that needs changing,” says Lucy Parker, co-author of The Activist Leader: A New Mindset for Doing Business. “An activist leader doesn’t think ‘I’m the whole answer to this question,’ but they think this is mine to do and I need to mobilize others and mobilize resources, mobilize people, mobilize activity to tackle that challenge.”

Co-author Jon Miller concurs. As he told me in an interview, “Lucy and I have been working together for 12 years now working with businesses on some of their toughest societal questions, whether that’s climate change or biodiversity or plastics in the ocean or privacy and disinformation or human rights in the supply chain.” Miller adds, “There are people who have this different way of thinking about how their business can relate to those issues. And we call that way of thinking. The activist mindset.”

Corporate engagement

There is a business case for corporate engagement on activist issues. Apple recently began using recycled aluminum in its product line, thereby reducing the amount of scrap aluminum. Walmart teamed with over 200 specialists in biodiversity to help farmers grow crops more sustainably and with greater diversity. 

“I mean, the operating environment for business is changing,” says Jon Miller. “The set of risks that business needs to think about is changing. That will create opportunities too.” Leaders with the activist mindset “are thinking about those issues — and the environment [in which] they’re operating –in  a different way.”  

Miller and Parker like to say to their clients, “Show us the business case for not acting given state that the world is in, given the severity of the challenges that the world is facing and the pivotal role that business is playing. The world is looking to businesses to play a part in these issues. The sustainable profitability of business depends upon them doing so.”

The challenge for companies is to operate within a sphere where they can have the most influence. For example, a pharmaceutical company can tackle healthcare disparities, an energy company can focus on climate change, and a retailer may choose to address community issues. What businesses should avoid is dabbling. That is, selecting an issue outside their areas of experience or choosing too many problems that dilute attention and resources.

Expect challenges

Change can come even when it’s hard. “You’ll often say this is what leadership is, this is not business as usual, this is not management speak,” says Lucy Miller. “This is we need to carve new ways of doing things.” Leadership is rooted in “preparedness to walk into a new way of doing things.” And when that occurs, says Parker, “you can see people grow” into a definition of the kind of leadership they want to deliver. Such leadership activism “is inspiring to work in because people have to find it in themselves to have that conviction.”

Becoming involved as an activist business leader requires determination rooted in resilience. Leaders must decide that their businesses need to be part of the solution. “Any leader at any level of a business will always run up against the next barrier, fall over at the next hurdle. The whole thing derails again and again,” says Jon Miller. “I think the real grace is having that clarity of vision, that clarity of purpose” to mobilize for the common good.

Inspiring words that, when acted upon, change companies, society, and our planet for the better.