What sustainability – and business – leaders should learn from Steve Jobs

By David Bicknell

It’s a couple of weeks since Steve Jobs left us. Many tributes have been paid. With sustainability in mind, I liked this blog post from Andrew Winston entitled ‘What Sustainability should learn from Steve Jobs.’

It’s not so much about Apple and sustainability. But it’s about Steve Jobs’  eye for innovation and one important lesson that sustainability-minded leaders can learn from Jobs’ legacy: you should lead your customers and show them a better way.

Winston, who writes regularly for the Harvard Business Review, suggests that most large companies today are “fast followers” –  with ‘fiscal and strategic conservatism breeding a culture where execs prefer to wait and talk to customers before doing anything drastic. Of course customer (and other stakeholder) perspectives are critical. But as with tablet computers, when it comes to sustainability, often the customers don’t really know what they need.

“Companies often gather data on what their business customers think a sustainable product should be, and the survey might show that including recycled material is important, even if that’s a tiny part of the real footprint story. Nobody knows the value chain of your product and service as well as you do (or if someone else does, get them in the room pronto). So figure out where the impacts really lie and what you can do to reduce your customer’s footprint in ways they hadn’t considered. This might require asking heretical questions about whether the product should even exist in its current form or should be converted into more of a service.” 

Winston believes the next generation’s Steve Jobs is likely to focus on sustainability since that’s where the largest challenges and business opportunities lie.

I like Winston’s thinking on “fast followers.” It’s far easier to be a follower  than to take a lead, get out there, take a risk and make a market. That’s fine, as long as second place is somewhere, and not nowhere.

As well as sustainability and business leaders, maybe there’s also a lesson here for those who aspire to create public sector mutuals: to take a lead and show that there’s a better way.

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