Business leaders need to step up to the challenge of climate change

World congress call for transformational leadership rather than incremental adjustment

Business leaders have been painfully slow to address the challenge of climate change according to Prof Colin Coulson-Thomas. Speaking at the 20th World Congress on Environment Management and Climate Change he told delegates: “Addressing climate change requires more than incremental adjustment. If sustainable lifestyles are to occur in both developing countries and the developed world, business, economic and social transformation are required.”

The author of “Winning Companies; Winning People” pointed out: “Some people define sustainability in terms of enabling existing operations, growth and development to continue. For others, sustainability is living within the boundaries of what is possible given the finite resources of our planet. Reconciling the two requires transformational leadership.”

He continued: “Many organisations need to operate differently and move more quickly. Boards making steady progress need to step up, provide transformational leadership, and embrace new models of organisation and business, and different strategies, methods of finance and forms of governance. However, many committed and well intentioned directors are comfortable with current practices. They feel successful, live well and consider they are doing a good job.”

The professor told attendees: “For most of my working life there have been a variety of options for transforming organisations, supply chains and how we operate. There have been a rich diversity in terms of how, when, where and with whom one could work, learn and acquire. They can have a beneficial impact upon the environment and reduce some of the drivers of climate change. Yet traffic jams and their associated pollution have increased.”

Coulson-Thomas finds: Many boards are only now looking at approaches, applications of technology, and business models that are far superior to current practices. Why the disinterest for so long? Are the laggards ignorant, lazy or just risk averse? Are they suffocating transformation? To provide environmental leadership, boards need to encourage diversity, challenge and creativity. They have to release potential, support innovation and inspire and enable entrepreneurship.”

The professor has been shocked by how slow most boards are to seize opportunities: “There were AI environments in the 1980s. Many so called disruptive technologies are not new. They are only disruptive for the complacent, unaware and idle. The alert, imaginative and energetic see them as enabling technologies. Too often there is awareness rather than application. Knowing about something does not mean that it will be used to transform how a company is organised, operates and creates value. Impact depends upon how knowledge is used and for what purpose.”

Coulson-Thomas finds laggards abound: “Struggling UK retail chains announce store closures and seek arrangements with their creditors. Their CEOs and directors cite changing purchasing habits such as buying on-line as the reason for their discomfort. On-line shopping is hardly new. Twenty five years ago natives in the Amazon basin were selling their craft wares via the internet. I wondered why companies run by highly paid business school graduates and advised by leading professional firms were not as imaginative.”

The professor’s investigations raise certain questions “Why are so many companies so slow to seize opportunities and so determined to stick with outdated business models and protect past investments rather than create new options and choices? Is improvement rather than creating new options and choices opting out or a comfort blanket? Will boards have the courage to call time on profitable activities that make unsustainable demands on natural resources? Will they work with customers to create less environmentally damaging business models, offerings and lifestyles?”

He continued: “Many boards follow rather than lead. They hope that something will turn up. Boards should inspire and make things happen. Are people in your company brought together in mixed discipline groups and asked to come up with more sustainable alternatives? Are key customers and their staff involved? What would they rather have? What would better enable them to achieve their sustainability objectives?

The professor concluded: “Scientific and technological developments allow us to change aspects of the natural world and create new forms of basic life. Answers to questions such as what a company should do differently that would benefit the environment are often constrained by experience of current practices. Blue skies thinking might be easier to find in a local school than in a firm of consultants. We need to get directors who feel they have arrived to realise that they have not yet started to provide the leadership required to address environmental issues and the challenge of climate change. What should we do differently tomorrow as a result of what we learn today?”

The World Congress on Environment Management and Climate Change 2018 is one of five annual international events organised by India’s Institute of Directors and for which Prof Coulson-Thomas provides the theme papers. Over 550 delegates attended and they were addressed by speakers from IFAD, the United Nations and World Bank and from Finland, India, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Qatar, Singapore, Spain, the UAE, the UK and the US.

Prof. (Dr) Colin Coulson-Thomas, President of the Institute of Management Services and chairman of Adaptation, has helped directors in over 40 countries to improve director, board and corporate performance. In addition to directorships he leads the International Governance Initiative of the Order of St Lazarus, is Director-General, IOD India, UK and Europe, chair of United Learning’s Risk and Audit Committee, Chancellor at the School for the Creative Arts, Honorary Professor at the Aston India Foundation for Applied Research, a Distinguished Professor at the Sri Sharada Institute of Indian Management-Research and a Visiting Professor of Direction and Leadership at Lincoln International Business School.

An experienced chairman of award winning companies and vision holder of successful transformation programmes, Colin is the author of over 60 books and reports. He has held public appointments at local, regional and national level and professorial appointments in Europe, North and South America, Africa, the Middle East, India and China. He was educated at the London School of Economics, London Business School, UNISA and the Universities of Aston, Chicago and Southern California. He is a fellow of seven chartered bodies and obtained first place prizes in the final exams of three professions. Details of his most recent books and reports can be found on: