Sustainable Decision-Making: Moving Beyond People, Planets, and Profits
This chapter highlights the immense difficulty of achieving sustainability unless the language of business changes from an obsessive focus on profit, and leaders use new frameworks to view business problems. Traditional framing in business includes the worlds of accounting, warfare, sports, and games, which are at odds with humanistic and holistic approach essential to developing leaders with the courage and engagement needed to address the challenge of the sustainability of our planet. The chapter introduces the need for a new language for sustainable business, examines the unhappiness of the millennial generation with the current language, and explores how business-as-usual changes when a more holistic language is used. The chapter then examines how when the decision-making frame changes from one of war and losses to one of community and social learning, decision makers are more likely to reframe both their goals and the focus of their analysis to go beyond monetary outcomes to include socially and environmentally sustainable outcomes. It also analyzes the role of holistic language, motivation and appropriateness in moving organizational cultures from a single-minded profit focus to one of triple bottom line sustainability. The chapter ends with a road map and several examples of how organizations can change the way they frame sustainability problems, develop new goals that are holistic in nature and aligned with global sustainability goals, and implement metrics to keep track of real progress towards sustainability.
KeywordsSustainability Sustainable decision making Triple bottom line Framing Holistic management Poetry and business
The Increasing Importance of Sustainability
Despite recent political rhetoric to the contrary, the scientific community continues to present evidence that environmental issues are urgent and climate change is a reality (https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-noaa-data-show-2016-warmest-year-on-record-globally). The Global Footprint Network, a nonprofit organization that keeps track of ecological overshoot, estimates that human beings use significantly greater ecological resources and services than nature can regenerate through its restorative processes. Our waters are overfished, forests are over-harvested, and more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere than can be absorbed. If the current state of affairs remains unchecked, human demand on the earth’s ecosystems is expected to exceed what nature can regenerate by 75% by 2020 (“Overshoot Day,” 2017).
The good news is that business leaders are paying attention. According to the KPMG 2013 Survey of Corporate Responsibility Report (which covers 4100 companies in 41 countries), the number of firms voluntarily reporting some noneconomic (i.e., environmental and social) measures to corporate sustainability rating agencies increased from approximately 10% to over 90% between 1993 and 2013. This increase was fueled in part by greater stakeholder expectation that reputable businesses be concerned with sustainability.
In 2013, almost all of the top 250 corporations on Fortune’s Global 500 list provided some type of reporting on their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. Eighty-two percent of them referred to the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines which emerged from work carried out by CERES , a Boston-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on encouraging the adoption of sustainable business practices and solutions by economic entities. CERES was previously known as the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (see www.ceres.org for more information). Though GRI’s original purpose (dating back to the 1990s) was to provide mechanisms to determine environmentally responsible conduct, over the years the framework and protocols have expanded to include environmental, social, and governance activities (ESG). In its latest iteration, the fourth generation of the guidelines (called G4) provides reporting principles and standard disclosures. They also identify the criteria that an organization should use to prepare its sustainability report, including evidence of economic, environmental, employee, shareholder, and stakeholder impact (see www.globalreporting.org for more information).
The bad news is that corporate efforts to really understand and implement “sustainability” and “sustainable development ” in their operations are only half-hearted. Until managers can define what these concepts mean in different organizational decision-making contexts, they will be slow in developing real goals and strategies to address today’s pressing environmental challenges. The underlying issue is that sustainable development requires a consideration of the ethics and ecology underlying the economics. Current business focus does not allow for the in-depth consideration of such an interconnected concept. Thus, in an effort to more clearly define sustainability , businesses are being encouraged to focus on the so-called triple-bottom line: economic well-being, environmental quality, and social justice. But Milne and Gray (2013, p. 24) note that “such conceptions are entity focused and reinforce the notion that business first not ecological systems must remain going concerns.” Managers are far more comfortable with developing concrete and measurable indicators of financial performance than they are with viewing the world as a fragile ecosystem in which negligent actions in one part of the world have significant ripple effects for global economies, social systems, and natural environments.
Another major problem is that companies frequently use their reporting about sustainability as a surrogate for actually making progress toward being more sustainable (Milne and Gray 2013). Although concern with sustainability is usually accompanied by measurement across the triple-bottom line , simply reporting ESG outcomes is not evidence of positive overall impact on environment and society. Additionally, evidence shows that firms tend to report cherry-picked positive ESG activities while overlooking aspects of their operations that have negative impacts and connotations. Even worse, some managers engage in hypocrisy, erect organizational facades, and use impression management tactics to manage expectations, preserve corporate reputations, and give the appearance that they are working hard at social and environmental issues.
Progress can be made if conversation in boardrooms, drawing attention to existing environmental and social consequences of economic decisions, and introducing new levels of transparency and changes in legislation continue (Wilburn and Wilburn 2014). Greater cooperation among different CSR rating agencies also suggests a move toward understanding that economic growth, social well-being, and environmental quality are interdependent. Even more dramatic progress can be made when decision makers in organizations develop business strategies that embrace three distinct but inter-related worldviews: rationalism, naturalism, and humanism (Senge et al. 2007). Rationalism refers to the efficient use of resources (i.e., getting the most output with the least amount of input), naturalism considers human activity as part of a larger ecosystem in which species are interdependent, and humanism recognizes that individuals in today’s society seek meaning and purpose. The integration of the three world views is not just a theoretical exercise, the Network for Business Sustainability has developed a framework for planning for businesses that integrates the three world views making it possible for business to move beyond talk to implementation of the triple bottom line .
Understanding the Role of Framing in Sustainable Decision Choices
Research in social cognition and behavioral decision-making strongly demonstrates that the way in which a problem is framed shapes opinions and influences the choices made by individuals. A frame is “a socially based, abstract, high-level knowledge structure that organizes certain information about the world into a coherent whole” (Huckin 2002, p. 354). Generally speaking, a frame consists of a set of words, metaphors, or symbols that are carefully chosen by a communicator over others in an effort to persuade and convince an audience to adopt the same world view. Framing is in itself just a technique that effectively uses language to create a context without any inherent morality. The resulting context, however, can and frequently does have moral implications. Thus, framing can be used to encourage individuals to engage in prosocial and altruistic behaviors or self-enhancing, community-eroding behaviors, and these behaviors can have a long-term or short-term impact. Framing, therefore, can also have temporal implications.
There are many interesting and powerful examples of how framing shapes attitudes and behaviors across multiple domains, ranging from politics and business to social interactions and psychology. In the area of environmental sustainability , fishermen can be persuaded to change the way they catch fish from pouring cyanide on or using dynamite to blast open coral reefs, to using nets and rods, based on whether they perceive the reef as a rock or resource to be exploited versus a living entity that supports a complex system of many species and needs to be treated with care so that the habitat can self-perpetuate. Spence and Pidgeon (2010) found that when information on climate change was framed positively as a gain (e.g., “By preventing further sea-level rises, we can prevent the inland migration of beaches and save up to 20% of coastal wetlands, maintaining the habitat availability for several species that breed or forage in low lying coastal areas”) instead of negatively as a loss (e.g., “With further sea-level rises, beaches will migrate inland and threaten up to 20% of coastal wetlands, reducing the habitat availability for several species that breed or forage in low lying coastal areas”), subjects viewed climate change mitigation more favorably and perceived climate change impacts more severely.
In the domain of social cognition , Liberman et al. (2004) conducted a series of experiments using a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (a classical game which examines the extent to which two participants will cooperate with each other for mutual benefit or compete against each other in pursuit of their own self-interest). In this particular simulation, half of the participants in the sample were told that there were going to play a game called the “Wall Street Game” while the other half were told that they were going to play a game called, the “Community Game.” In both situations, the game was the same (except for the title). It was assumed that the label, the “Wall Street Game,” would connote rugged individualism, competitiveness, and self-interest, whereas the label, the “Community Game,” would signify interdependence, cooperation, and collective interest. The results showed that a greater percentage of subjects playing the “Community Game” cooperated, achieving outcomes that were collectively greater and more equitable, compared to subjects playing the “Wall Street Game” – merely changing the name changed the frame and the ensuing behavior.
In the political domain, George Lakoff (2016), a well-regarded cognitive linguist, has argued that President Donald Trump’s use of simple, short phrases have a great subconscious appeal to listeners because they activate the neurons in the brain and increase the perception that an idea is more probable than it really is. When Trump uses repetition – “We’re going to win, win, win” – an individual’s neural circuitry gets stronger and stronger. Furthermore, when the term “radical Islamic terrorists” is said over and over, the link between “Islam” and “terrorism” is reinforced, consequently resulting in a public that fears Islam as terrorism. In fact, Lakoff argues that conservative politicians endorse a world view that associates them with “family values” and “fatherhood.” This motivates their supporters to view opposing positions in high-valence issues, such as abortions and the human role in climate change as misguided and immoral, causing significant misunderstanding among counterparts and a breakdown in the open exchange of ideas.
Framing can also occur spontaneously where the individual imposes, frequently subconsciously, a certain frame upon a context. For example, ownership of an object has psychological consequences where owners spontaneously “endow” the object they own with more positive than negative attributes as well as assign greater monetary value to it (Thaler 1980). A frequently observed example of this is when a homeowner insists that the sales price for a much-loved home be set higher than the value assigned to it by the market due to its perceived “special characteristics.”
Arora et al. (2015) show that agribusinesses in the Argentine pampas, one of the most fertile areas in the globe and a net producer of global food commodities, frame their goals for the land they own differently from their goals for land they rent. Although the economic goals for all the activities are the same for the agribusiness (to optimize profitability across the product portfolio), their focus in the farmed-land that they own is on the long term, and thus they are willing to invest in maintaining the quality of the land, employees-learning, and creating social capital in the local communities. This is in stark contrast to the approach in lands that they rent, where they perceive the rent-payment as a loss and are more likely to focus on making back the rent money spent by maximizing profit and minimizing any costs or investments. Arguably, the spontaneous framing made salient by the context impacts the overall sustainability of the agribusiness sector in Argentina – as a larger agricultural area is rented, the switch from the holistic ownership frame that prompts long-term investment in the quality of the land and community development is replaced by the short-term profit maximization frame of a renter.
The true impact of framing, therefore, is felt in its influence upon which choices appear salient and how options are perceived when solving problems and making decisions. In the example of the Argentine agribusinesses, any expenses incurred to maintain land that is owned are framed as investments and perceived as gains in the long run, while similar expenses are framed as costs and losses when the land is rented. Not surprisingly, when framing of the purpose of a business is defined in economic terms, noneconomic metrics support the environmental and social aspects of the triple bottom line as viewed as external to the true purpose of business; they are onerous costs to be avoided.
The Language of Business: The Need for a New Frame
Current Business Jargon Provides Narrow and Competitive Frame
As observed, language can be manipulated in order to promote the adoption of a particular point of view, which in turn establishes the context for decision-making. The contextual framing establishes priorities by highlighting who and what are most salient and therefore important in the decision process.
In his Encyclical Letter, dated May 24, 2015, Pope Francis issued an urgent appeal with regards to the care of our “common home” (Bergoglio 2015). The only way to really protect it was to “bring the whole human family together to seek sustainable and integral development.” The pope called for a “new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.” Multinational corporations were expected to join the challenging effort since they were responsible for unemployment, abandoned towns, depletion of natural resources, and pollution of rivers when, for financial reasons, they ceased operations in developing countries.
Unfortunately, the pope’s new dialogue and holistic approach to better addressing one of the most significant societal problems we face is at odds with the language and single-minded pursuit of economic goals adopted by many of our most prominent leaders in the business community. Chief executive officers (CEOs) and business leaders continue to frame their companies’ futures egocentrically, in terms of sports, competitive games, and military warfare. A quick survey of the business headlines in the Wall Street Journal during the first week of May 2017 showed the top five most frequently used words: win, lead, war, game, and earnings. The next five words were of similar vein (price, million, more, money, and accounting). Despite some talk about consideration of people and planet-related variables, business leaders have not seriously started to either use holistic thinking or to develop a robust set of metrics for “triple-bottom line” performance, which involves equal attention to planet, people, and profits. Books such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War are frequently found on the reading lists of business leaders, highlighting the attention paid to economic outcomes and the strong emphasis on “winning strategies” for the “game/war” of business. This chapter argues that such situational framing may serve to justify overly competitive and aggressive behaviors. If a business is “at war,” then it is acceptable to cut corners, break promises, develop shoddy products, spy on competitors, mistreat employees, and harm the environment. If a business is “a game,” it is similarly justifiable to cheat just a little to win for a game is rarely seen to have consequences that can be the difference between life and death. Given climate change, however, life and death may be exactly what’s at stake.
The current language of business, for the most part, may inadvertently provide the very opposite of the holistic approach that business leaders and their employees must take to promote greater sustainability . Rationality, viewed as the bedrock of business, economic, and scientific thinking (Scott 2000), assumes that the optimal technique for decision making is deliberate calculation that involves an effortful cognitive process aimed to maximize self-interest (Smith 1991). Thus, the prescription in business is to approach decisions across contexts by using deliberate calculative strategies, and not surprisingly, the language used reflects as well as encourages a calculative mindset. Implicit support for this explicit understanding is reinforced by use of stories like Warren Buffett suggesting that the best college major is “Accounting – it is the language of business” (as cited in Buffett and Clark 2006). The analogy resonates deeply since business activities culminate in the corporate annual report and represent a way for them to “keep score,” by disclosing revenues, profits, cash flow, assets, and debt. As important as these functions are to the viability of a business, it is equally imperative that businesses not be constrained to or defined by its mere economic sustainability – environmental and social sustainability are at least as, if not more, important to the overall success of the business.
Business and organizations are characterized by the use of language that keeps track of winners and losers, that encourages weighing costs and gains, and that provides a strong market perspective. Thus, in addition to the language of accounting, one finds a prevalence of the use of the language of warfare and sports (Camiciottoli 2007). A quantitative study of magazine and newspaper texts on the business strategy of mergers and acquisitions found that the “fighting metaphor” was predominant (Koller 2004). For years, military terminologies that is “market invasion,” “price wars,” and “guerilla warfare,” were used in the marketing discipline (Laufer 2010). The war analogy provides the strategic language for marketing professionals, and as long as it dominates current thinking, it crowds out social concerns. Most metaphors used in business are “rhetorical” such as “we hit a home run” or “the bubble burst” which do not promote different ways of thinking and do not offer new insights (Von Ghyczy 2003).
When CEOs communicate with others during shareholder meetings, earnings calls, and televised interviews, they do more than just objectively report on their firm’s performance. They weave a story and provide a context, a frame, in which they justify their cost cutting actions because they were faced with “a fiercely competitive environment” or they praise their less than spectacular earnings because they “persisted and successfully weathered an unprecedented economic, political and social storm.” They reassure shareholders that they will continue to develop winning strategies in the years to come.
In a quarterly earnings call, when John Chambers, CEO of CISCO, turned to his successor, Chuck Robbins, he said, “You and I are on the 18th hole, we’re already ahead by five strokes in a team play, and all of our competitors have hit their golf ball into the woods. By the time we’re through, they’re still going to be looking for their golf balls” (as quoted in Clark 2015). The analogy to golf creates the impression that business is a game to be won instead of a means to important ends for shareholders, employees, customers, and citizens, as well as a way to protect the environment so that their wants and needs can continue to be satisfied.
In his 2014 letter to shareholders, Jamie Dimon referred to his company, JP Morgan Chase, more than once as an “endgame winner” which had “well-fortified moats” to protect it from debilitating competition and unforeseen events. We find here a “winner takes all” attitude combined with overly defensive posturing. The language is intended to assure shareholders that JP Morgan has what it takes to succeed, but it also models appropriate behaviors that are aggressive and combative in nature. Such language, however, may not be sufficient for today’s challenges because it is “a technical language, honed to its specific purpose but constrained in wider, more complex applications” (Doughty as cited in Windle 1994, p. 2).
There are, of course, some notable exceptions. In a reading of Salesforce.com’s recent letter to shareholders, we see a broader focus on revenue growth, customer service, top rankings for one of the “top ten companies to work for” and one of the “most admired software” companies, as well as information on how the company is not just transforming business but also communities. It emphasizes employees’ adherence to its core values of trust, innovation, growth, and equality. Salesforce.com’s CEO, Marc Benioff, is a lead advocate for social change. He has been pressuring politicians to develop policies to close the gender gap in pay and to protect employees with religious beliefs from being fired by faith-based organizations (Langley 2016).
The framing of business in the language of accounting, warfare, and sports has several concerning consequences. If a business is “at war,” then the stakes are high and it might be acceptable to cut corners, break promises, develop shoddy products, spy on competitors, mistreat employees, and harm the environment. If a business is just a “game,” then a little bit of cheating can be forgiven as long as the referee does not notice.
Truncating ethical content
Privileging adversarial relationships.
Language that encourages a deliberate, calculative mindset, as is the case with metaphors of war and games, though grounded in rational theory, activates calculative assessment of even nonmonetary contexts. It has been shown to result in number of negative, including disengagement from work, declining ethics, lack of interpersonal trust, lower concern for others, and greater concern for oneself. In addition, such language may be viewed as the language of the past and thus not be fully embraced or even accepted by the Millennials – those entering or in relatively junior positions in the workforce.
The Millennials Disagree with the Language and Intent of Business-as-Usual
Millennials (those who are currently between the ages of 16 and 34 years) have expressed dissatisfaction with the core values for long-term success currently adopted by most companies, and yet future business leaders will come from among them. The Deloitte 2016 Millennial Survey (which surveys only 16 to 21 year olds rather than all Millennials) concluded that a significant leadership gap exists between the priorities Millennials would have if they led their organizations and where they believe their senior leadership teams are focused (Fuller 2016). As in previous surveys, Millennials continue to place far greater emphasis than current leaders on “employee wellbeing” and “employee growth and development.” They would be less focused on “personal income/reward” or “short-term financial goals.” Millennials would like businesses to devote effort towards improving the skills, income, and “satisfaction levels” of employees, creating jobs, and ensuring that their goods and services have a positive impact on users. Almost 9 in 10 Millennials believe that “the success of a business should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance” (Fuller 2016).
It’s a dog eat dog world, if I don’t bite first, I’ll be eaten
Business is war
The purpose of business is shareholder value
You are always competing – against other businesses, other employees
Millennial disengagement is so high that two in three Millennials expect to leave their current places of employment by 2020 (Fuller 2016). When asked what positive impacts business had on society, businesses got high marks for “creating jobs and increasing prosperity.” Millennials however gave corporate executives low marks for what they felt were the three other main challenges of the twenty-first century: climate change and environment, managing resource scarcity, and reducing inequality of incomes. Millennials do not seem to put much faith in the willingness of today’s executives to protect their future or ensure that they will be able to thrive in a world of abundance. Their mistrust of corporations is turning them off from current organizational workplaces. They will not become cooperative partners of business unless executives work with them to develop a sense of shared values and mutual respect. As consumers, Millennials are starting to exert their purchasing power by shopping locally at farmer’s markets, buying fair trade products, and cleaning out shelves stocked with organic goods.
Millennials also seek new educational opportunities that are not necessarily found in today’s graduate programs in business. A small-scale study found that MBA applicants whose possess a balance of self-interest and social good are attracted to a graduate curriculum that views spiritual qualities (e.g., respect for others, transcendence and social justice) as an integral part of enhanced managerial capacities offered by a Catholic institution (More and Todarello 2013). Its MBAE program was designed to “capture and connect to the spiritual core of future students” (More and Todarello 2013, p. 23).
It is urgent for today’s business leaders to assume greater responsibility towards society’s future decision-makers by showing much greater concern for people, planet, and profits. They are at risk of causing low morale, skepticism, and poor performance if they do not keep up with the growing concerns and demands of the next generation of managers. Incremental changes and lip-service to the triple bottom line is no longer sufficient – there is a need for a new framing of the business context and it begins with a new language for business.
The Arts as a New Frame for Business
The Holistic Frame of Poetry and the Arts
The arts can provide insights into the new lens by which to view the mission and goals of modern day organizations and their significant relationships to society to ensure sustainability . Bartunek and Ragins (2015) called on scholars and scholar-practitioners to increase their understanding of (a) the types of art that can inspire their thinking and theorizing and (b) the ways in which the arts can open their minds to fresh ideas. They referred to the following relevant art experiences: poetry, fine art, crafts, film, documentaries, photography, dance, theater, music, architecture, and others. Arts-based methods can result in skills transfer; reflection through projection; illustration of the essence; and the release of subconscious ideas, experiences, and emotions through the process of creating something physically.
While all arts appear to be broadening, with the capacity to help leaders create the basis for long-term sustainable growth for their organizations without having to “win” at a cost to others, it is suggested that poetry, in particular, can help leaders create a more holistic approach towards both their roles and the cultures of their organizations by changing their immediate mindset and focus (Adler 2015). Because poems are multidimensional, they promote the ability to detect different modes of meaning and to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, which are fundamental to decision making under conditions of climate change and environmental volatility. Because they are almost infinitely interpretable, poems help develop the ability to consider other viewpoints and to examine and revise current insights and perceptions. Because poems draw attention to human needs and motivations, they allow one to address ethical issues (Morgan 2013).
In the next section, research showing the positive impacts that poetry can have on attitudes and emotions is described.
Literary Neuroscience : A growing number of scientists are studying the brain wave activity of subjects as they read prose compared to poetry and as they read a poet’s actual verses compared to a simplified translation. Using fMRI technology, Zeman et al. (2013) found that brain wave activities of volunteers differed when they read literary prose (e.g., an extract from a heating installation manual) compared to when they read poetry (e.g., sonnets). Poetry activated the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, which have been linked to introspection. Davis and his colleagues at Liverpool University (as reported in Henry 2013) conducted a study in which the brains of volunteers were scanned when they read four original lines by William Wordsworth and four easy to comprehend, translated lines:
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grace and oh,
The difference to me!
She lived a lonely life in the country,
And nobody seems to know or care,
But she is dead,
And I feel her loss.
The original lines triggered greater brain activity in the left hemisphere (for language) and in the right hemisphere (for reflection, autobiographical memory and emotion) than the translated lines. Davis concluded that “Serious literature acts like a rocket-booster to the brain” and that it is better than “self-help books” in dealing with serious human situations (as quoted in Henry 2013).
Organizational Behavior: Research in this area suggests that poetry can help individuals connect deeply with their inner emotional self that, in turn, elicits empathy and the ability to connect at an emotional level with others. It can add value to a business student’s self-awareness and artistic expression (Morris et al. 2005). Van Buskirk and London (2012) found that poetry helped students in an Organizational Behavior course to develop new insights and express themselves better as well as arrive at a deeper understanding of the course content. Morris et al. (2005) concurred and found that presenting students with poetry enhances emotional intelligence, which is so critical for effective management.
Romanowska et al. (2014) found that participants in an arts-based leadership program (which included contrasting phrases of poetry) showed less laissez-faire management, increased self-awareness, improved humility, and greater capacity to handle stress compared to participants in a conventional leadership program (which included lectures on organizational and leadership theories). Parker (2003) reported that writing and studying poetry helped managers improve their business writing. Poetry writing has been shown to encourage creative exploration and informed empathy; it can also be used by leaders as a tool to build trust, demonstrate empathy, communicate more effectively, and inspire others (Grisham 2006).
Strategy : Morgan (2013), a fiction writer, critic, and director of the graduate creative writing program at the University of Oxford, was hired by the BCG’s Strategy Institute to study the relationship between poetry and strategic thinking. She linked the characteristics of poems to the development of certain managerial and leadership skills, concluding that poetry helps the reader become a “sharpener” instead of a “leveler .” A sharpener is a person who can tolerate ambiguity, is ready to think and perform symbolically, and keeps in mind, simultaneously, various aspects of the whole. A leveler suppresses differences and emphasizes similarities, seeks perceptual stability, is anxious to categorize sensations, and is unwilling to give up a category once it has been established.
There have been many corporate executives who were also great poets, including Wallace Stevens (who was the vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company) and TS Eliot (who worked for 10 years at Lloyd’s Bank of London). Dana Gioia is an American poet and the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. He was also a marketing director of General Foods. Gioia credits his ability to turn around the Jell-O product line from a $7 million loss to a $20 million profit in the 1980’s to skills he developed as a poet. He remarked, “How did it happen? I looked at things differently. I made associative connections. I thought around and beyond and through the data that confronted me” (as quoted in Morgan 2013, p. 43).
In view of the many global challenges we face as a society, with economic instability and climate change at the top of the list, we need sharpeners who can see past the superficial rhetoric promoted by others that “market capitalism is the only economic system that works” or that “melting in the polar ice caps is caused by natural climate cycles.” An individual who can tolerate ambiguity realizes it is not “either – or” but, more often, “both.” Sharpeners need to take responsible action and stand firm – economic, environmental, and social goals are critical to the future of human well-being; the ice caps can be melting and freezing over at the same time due to both natural causes and man-made carbon emissions.
Leading a business towards sustainability is not an art or a science – but both. We need both short-term and long-term thinking to propel our organizations to success: We need leaders capable and willing to take responsibility for short- and long-term success. And perhaps, akin to Peter Senge’s systems thinking, we need leaders who can comprehend the interrelationship among the parts in the whole and engage in holistic problem solving (Senge 1990). As Senge (1990, p. 69) reminded us, “Complexity can easily undermine confidence and responsibility – as in the frequent refrain, ‘It’s all too complex for me,’ or ‘There’s nothing I can do. It’s the system.’ System thinking is the antidote to this sense of helplessness that many feel as we enter the ‘age of interdependence’ … by seeing wholes we learn how to foster health,” and by thinking at the level of the system, we take responsibility for the whole.
Today’s Business Leaders Use Poetry to Create Sustainable Organizations
Business leaders and students alike are often told to “think outside the box” to solve today’s unforeseen problems. Poetry can be the mechanism that allows for nonobvious associative relationships, essential for out-of-box-thinking, and central to sustainable long-term success.
Jim Rogers was the influential chairman, president, and CEO of Duke Energy between 2006 and 2013. Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken ,” (see Box for complete poem) was very meaningful for him. The poem is about a traveler who has to choose between one of two paths. It is not clear which one he should take especially since he thinks one might be better than the other but he is not sure. It may be that one road is less traveled and it may be that both roads are actually the same. Only at the end of his journey will the traveler know in retrospect that he indeed did take the more promising road. This is analogous to a leader who has to choose among two courses of action for her company. It is not clear which one will lead to greater innovation, profits, or relative market share. In many cases, the data are ambiguous and will only predict so much. The leader must rely on her expertise, gut feeling, and intuition; both right-brain and left-brain thinking are required when faced with tremendous environmental uncertainty.
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Poem available in Public Domain. Obtained from: http://publicdomainpoems.com/theroadnottaken.html
Rogers reported that in 1988 he faced “two diverging roads” as CEO of PSI Energy (which later became Duke Energy). He could follow industry trends in which executives considered shareholders to be the only stakeholders of the corporation and focus on maximizing short-term profits or he could depart from this conventional approach and balance the competing needs of many stakeholders, including customers, employees, regulators, suppliers, partners, the environment, and future generations (Intrator and Scribner 2007). Rogers chose the latter, less traveled road. He called this road his “true north,” following it helped his leadership team through good times and bad (Intrator and Scribner 2007, p. 110).
In a 2011 commencement speech at North Carolina State University, Rogers urged students to write their own best-selling book called, No Limits (Rogers 2011). He advised students to become strong central protagonists in their own story. They should take charge of the writing, which others may have started, and not be afraid to rewrite some of the book’s chapters. There is a parallel here between the traveler choosing a road and a graduating student embarking on his or her next step. There are lots of directions to take, but the individual, be it a student or a manager, needs to figure it out for himself and chart his own course. It is fine to have doubts and to make mistakes. But the individual should try to find the path that will make “all the difference.” For Rogers, this meant pursuing one’s passion with conviction, putting the needs of others ahead of one’s own and taking a holistic and sustainable approach to business, i.e., leading responsibly.
While engaged in strategic action, it is difficult for managers to know if they will be ultimately successful. Like the traveler in Frost’s poem, they will only know the results when they look back at the past. As Rogers notes, “Bursting out beyond the limits involves a certain amount of risk. At the time, you never know for sure which were the right choices or the wrong ones, which were the good breaks or the bad ones in your life. You may only know when you look back on them years later. Just as you don’t know what happens until you reach the end of a book” (Rogers 2011, para. 10).
To convince others of the urgent need to reverse global warming, Rogers quoted a line in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, “There is a tide in the affairs of men.” We need to get on board, ride the tide, and find alternative sources of energy. We need to work collaboratively with our diverse stakeholders to come up with a solution. Rogers also used poetic language to let us know that the journey ahead is long and difficult. He said, “We really have to have what I would call cathedral thinking, where we are looking out and saying we need to address this problem over many decades, in the same way the cathedrals of Europe took many decades to build. It’s going to take many decades of both mitigation and adaptation to get to the right place on this planet” (as quoted in Zakaria 2007, p. 48).
Poetry can be a way of identifying the essence of a problem stripped of confusing jargon and difficult numeric calculations. It might seem strange that Dr. Gregory Johnson, an oceanographer, would write a series of 19 haiku poems, illustrated with watercolor paintings, focusing on the major report findings highlighted in the summary of the 2013 international report on climate change science issued by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (see Box for examples). Johnson served as a lead author for the chapter on ocean observations in the 1535-page report and was having difficulty synthesizing the vast amount of information written in detailed, technical language. The report consisted of such topics as “changes in the water cycle and cryosphere” and “radiative forcing from anthropogenic aerosols.” One weekend, when he was ill and housebound, Johnson occupied his mind by writing haikus. They were subsequently published online and praised for summing up climate change in an “understandable and even moving, way” (Mooney as quoted in Doughton 2014, para. 5).
Haiku and Watercolors by Gregory Johnson: Poetic and holistic expression of complex scientific phenomenon
Used with the permission of Gregory C. Johnson and Sightline.
The grim UN report on climate change could cause one of two negative emotions for a concerned scientist: fear usually triggers an avoidance motivational system in which the individual perceives that risks are higher than they really are and that the best strategy is to flee; anger is associated with an approach motivational system in which the risks are perceived as being lower than they really are, so the individual stays and fights. Johnson, overwhelmed by the evidence that the earth was on a course that could not easily be reversed, worked hard to contain the dread and fear and started to write haiku and paint watercolors. These artistic endeavors calmed him down and enabled him to gain clarity and inspiration. He came up with evocative words and images to depict a future that no one wants – sour oceans, melting ice, snow retreat, frozen earth, and raised seas. Johnson did this for himself, but his friends and family liked his work so much that he put it in a booklet, which went viral, alerting others to the environmental challenges we face. He recognized that the natural environment is an important stakeholder of business.
Poetic devices, such as metaphors, have been considered a great tool for helping organizations identify themselves, create a sense of purpose, and revisit strategic decisions. One might wonder what cloud computing has in common with a Grecian urn. For Satya Nadella , the recently hired CEO of Microsoft and a veteran computer scientist, poetry is both a passion and a powerful device for communicating vision and the need for cooperation. As Nadella noted, there is nothing more haunting than the final lines in his favorite poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn, by WB Yeats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” He compares poetry to software code: “You’re trying to take something that can be described in many, many sentences and pages of prose, but you can convert it into a couple lines of poetry and you still get the essence, so it’s that compression” (as quoted in Bedigian 2014).
Nadella faces the challenging job of reinventing the software giant, Microsoft. Under Bill Gates and Steven Balmer, the company relied heavily on its Windows Operating System and Windows Office Suite as major sources of revenues. In the process, it failed to embrace open source code, mobile devices, and online software. As Microsoft’s new CEO, Nadella needed to do two things quickly: differentiate himself from his predecessors and chart out an exciting future for the company. He did this by creating a new narrative for the company, filled with poetic and literary references. Stories and narratives are powerful tools that leaders can use as literary weapons.
In a memo sent out on his first day at work, Nadella paraphrased a quote from Oscar Wilde: “We need to believe in the impossible and remove the improbable.” He continued to write, “This starts with clarity of purpose and sense of mission that will lead us to imagine the impossible and deliver it. We need to prioritize innovation that is centered on our core value of empowering users and organizations to ‘do more” (http://news.microsoft.com/2014/02/04/satya-nadella-email-to-employees-on-first-day-as-ceo/).
Within 45 s of his first public appearance, Nadella quoted TS Eliot’s poem, “Little Gidding”:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The poem was used by Nadella to convey an important message: it was time for Microsoft to learn from the past, move forward, and reinvent itself. Leaders, like Nadella, use linguistic and nonlinguistic resources at their disposal in an attempt to communicate with and persuade others about complex issues with a clarity that is otherwise difficult to attain.
The holistic language used by leaders like Nadella nudges individuals to move from a narrow self-oriented perspective to a broader other-encompassing one, opening them up to greater insights and nonobvious connections between variables. The result is a re-framing of the problem in a language that is multidimensional, promoting the ability to detect different modes of meaning and to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. This not only allows for consideration of other viewpoints, an examination and revision of current insights and perceptions, but also draws attention to human needs and motivations, allowing one to address issues of ethics and engagement.
In order for organizations to follow this new holistic approach, it is not sufficient for leaders to just take from poetry and change their language. The underlying motivational systems and decision-making processes also need to change to reflect the complex nature of current business problems, which require creativity and innovation along with discipline and perseverance against all odds. Traditional motivational mechanisms used in today’s organizations are predominantly incentive based, leading to a calculative, task-oriented mind-set, rather than innovative holistic approaches. Although an in-depth review of motivation and decision making is beyond the scope of this chapter, the next section outlines an approach by which economic, environmental, and social goals can be made more salient in the decision process by changing motivational underpinnings.
The Logic of Appropriateness and Sustained Motivation
March (1994) suggests that decisions are made to be appropriate to the situation or context. Thus, a decision is the result of the decision maker’s response to the question “what does a person like me do in a situation like this?” This question, also referred to as “the logic of appropriateness, ” contains three subquestions: (i) what defines the situation, (ii) who is the person in this situation? or what is his/her appropriate role? and (iii) given a person and a situation, what is the appropriate norm, decision rule, or choice?
The framing of the situation plays a major role in how it is defined by the decision maker and makes certain roles and goals more salient. For example, when a task is called a competition, decision-maker focus is on the choice that allows for an individual win, even at the cost of others. Changing the name of the same task to a team activity changes the focus to ensuring everyone involved in the task benefits from the outcome, i.e., there is no one single winner. Similarly, organizations can choose the context within which the decision is framed.
Decision-maker characteristics also influence the saliency of roles and goals. Internal characteristics and factors can be thought of as variables and processes relevant to the decision that are internal to the decision-maker, such as being risk averse (as opposed to risk-seeking), and pro-social (concerned about others impacted by the decision) or proself (concerned only with the outcomes for oneself). External factors, on the other hand, can be thought of as variables within the context of a decision that change how internal factors may be expressed. The expression of internal tendencies can be emphasized or attenuated by situational characteristics. In fact, the same person may choose options that are more holistic in a collective context, but may reverse the valuation when in an individualistic context and considering benefits only him/herself. This reversal of choices is spontaneous and automatic and thus is frame or context-dependent (Arora et al. 2012).
The last element in the appropriateness framework is the rule applied to the decision. These can be the result of fast, frugal processing as in a heuristic, or a more deliberate process, what Kahneman (2011) labeled as “System 1” and “System 2” modes . In both cases, the rules seen as “appropriate” will be influenced by both decision factors that are salient. Here too, organizations can choose which rules and heuristics they support through rewards and recognition. The logic of appropriateness suggests that decision makers are motivated to achieve congruence between their context, internal characteristics, and options chosen. When an organization motivates actions that are incongruent with its stated values, employees and customers feel a lack of fit, which has been shown to decrease productivity and create dissatisfaction as well as a lack of trust. For example, stating that authentic interactions with customers are valued while rewarding the number of customer complaints handled in a time-period (independent of the quality of the interaction) will result the latter being the focus and the former being ignored due to an incongruence between means and ends. The resulting nonfit is likely to reduce employee satisfaction and lead to greater distrust of the organizational leadership and culture.
It is not surprising then that Millennials , who see the main challenges for the twenty-first century as including complex wicked problems like climate change , resource scarcity, and income inequality find the current language of business of economic profits and income-generation confining, resulting in an ever-declining level of trust in businesses. These problems require creativity, empowerment, innovation, and effective interdisciplinary collaborations. The millennial response to the appropriateness question in their identity as business-people who are expected to maximize profits does not fit with their self-perceived identity as socially minded individuals who wish to be creative and have impact. This non fit however is not an unsurmountable problem – it can be ameliorated by creating organizations with cultures that subscribe to goals beyond economic profit, encourage holistic approaches to decision making, and focus on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation.
Ultman (1997) defines intrinsic motivation as the innerdirected force that causes an individual to engage with a task for the sake of the task itself. Intrinsic motivation is frequently accompanied by a high level of interest in the task itself, a propensity to exercise creativity in the task, and greater satisfaction from achieving high level of task-accomplishment rather than desired outcome. Other major elements of intrinsic motivation are its connections with meaningfulness of task and self-determination of action in the task. Empowerment of all members of an organization to be engaged in their tasks increases intrinsic motivation. Intrinsically motivated work is therefore simultaneously meaningful and challenging, allowing for introspection and creativity to achieve expertise and satisfaction in a job well-done.
It bears pointing out that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have a place in an organization’s repertoire of motivational tools – using both allows for congruency between means and ends resulting in greater fit, thereby increasing both satisfaction and productivity. External rewards and punishments work best when the tasks are routine, consistent, with easily and objectively measured outcomes. Intrinsic motivation is a more effective tool when tasks are nonroutine, requiring creativity, collaboration, and cognitive effort with subjectively measured outcomes.
In sum, this chapter argues for a comprehensive approach by business leaders and managers to use the holistic language of the arts to frame business problems as social endeavors, change the metrics such that success is defined and measured evenly across the triple bottom line , and create motivational mechanisms that empower and support individual decision-makers to achieve fit resulting in greater satisfaction and productivity – a promising recipe for engaged decision making for a sustainable future. Although far from simple, the steps outlined above are achievable across industries and corporate boardrooms as illustrated in the next section.
Implementation of a New Language
The road ahead for businesses seeking to have a positive impact on planet, people, and profits is difficult, but not impossible. By reframing the issues, redefining company mission and goals, developing comprehensive metrics to evaluate progress and make continuous improvements, and allocating time and money to sustainable initiatives, today’s leaders and managers can make valuing and supporting long-term sustainability a fundamental characteristic of their organizational cultures. Even more encouraging is the fact that companies operating in some of the most environmentally vulnerable industries – mining (e.g., AngloGold Ashanti in Ghana), timber (Weyerhaeuser Productos in Uruguay), and agriculture (e.g., Cargill in Vietnam) – are already successfully executing such changes.
What is most notable about these examples is their use of a “small wins” strategy . Working on projects to address specific problems in regions in which a corporation has a significant presence provides momentum and results as large problems are broken down and solved step by step. As noted by Amabile and Kramer (2011), “When we think about progress, we often imagine how good it feels to achieve a long-term goal or experience a major breakthrough. These big wins are great—but they are relatively rare.” More often, change occurs incrementally. In less than 2 years, AngloGold Ashanti was able to reduce the number of reported cases of malaria in Ghana by 73% through an integrated disease control program; in the process, 127 permanent jobs as spray operators for local residents were created and a malaria control center was opened along with support from the Ghanaian government (Linnenluecke et al. 2014). The model was subsequently extended to mining areas in Tanzania and Guinea.
Weyerhaeuser Productos supervises projects in Uruguay to enhance land productivity, increase local employment, build and operate plants using biomass fuel, plant forests in areas where they had never been trees (a practice called “afforestation”), and promote strong worker safety programs. Cargill Vietnam has brought technology to cocoa farmers, developed an independent certification program to safeguard the environment, offers farmers a premium price for their crops, and has established 76 new schools in rural communities (Buchanan 2016). Both companies received the US State Department’s Award for Corporate Excellence.
The progress evolving at AngloGold Ashanti, Weyerhaueser Productos, and Cargill can only occur if there is strong commitment from top management to reframe the business and align corporate strategic goals with the eight UN Millennium Development Goals (see http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/goals/). The work done by Mark Cutifani, the CEO of Anglo American (a mining firm that formerly owned AngloGold Ashanti), is a worthwhile example for consideration. In collaboration with the Kellogg Innovation Network, Cutifani is helping to shift mining from an “isolated extractive” industry to a “resource development” industry (Cutifani and Bryant undated, p. 10). Remember how a change in language enabled fishermen to view the reef as a “living entity” and find safer ways to capture lobsters? In this case, a change in language is helping miners view the industry as less exploitative of the earth’s valuable resources and more of a catalyst for the socioeconomic development and wellbeing of mining communities around the world. Executives are being encouraged to recognize that there is no one “silver bullet”. … Instead, companies need to recognize that a variety of actions will be required and that these need to be underpinned by a changed mindset that reevaluates the role of mining in the societies in which they operate (Cutifani and Bryant undated, p. 8; bold italics added).
The next step is to integrate the new frame into a company’s mission statement and goals. Anglo American’s mission is: “Together we create sustainable value that makes a real difference” (http://www.angloamerican.com/about-us/our-approach). With this holistically framed mission statement as a point of reference, the second step is to develop goals and measures that attest to the company’s ability to “make a real difference.” Goals and targets are set to ensure that the company does no harm to its workforce, minimizes harm to the environment, shares the benefits of mining with local communities and governments, and has an engaged productive workforce. These holistic goals are measured with metrics that are meaningful and reflect the focus of the company beyond just economics. It is important that the metrics and processes show high degrees of transparency, as recommended by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) , by documenting positive and negative impacts of performance (“balance”), enabling shareholders to compare performance results across time (“comparability”), providing solid and detailed qualitative/quantitative information (“accuracy”), committing to reporting on performance on a regular schedule (“timeliness’), describing information on performance in an understandable way (“clarity”), and allowing information to be subject to examination (“reliability’).
Anglo American ’s biggest gains have been in reducing new cases of occupational disease, increasing the number of HIV-positive employees in disease management programs, using less water in its operations, reducing the number of environmental incidents, and increasing procurement spending with black-owned and managed companies. Its code of conduct available from its website in English, Spanish, and Portuguese ensures that the important values of safety, care and respect, integrity, accountability, collaboration, and innovation infused within its organizational culture, thus signaling support for and valuation of the sustainability focus. This is the final step of continuous improvement towards sustainability . Clearly, such a transformation is not possible without considerable investment of resources and complete organizational commitment. When there is such commitment, coupled with holistic thinking, organizations transform, becoming beacons of sustainable practices.
What is the true intent of the organization – the legacy it hopes to leave behind, the impact it aspires to have in the immediate and distant future?
How can the true intent identified in (A) be best captured in a succinct and meaningful way? This requires a move away from current language of the business to using a new more holistic language to redefine goals, values, and mission.
Responses and materials developed in Q2 are just words unless they are transformed into metrics, processes, and organizational culture. This next step, outlined in the top-right quadrant (Q3), requires an understanding of how decision makers in the organization currently respond to the logic of appropriateness question (how are they framing the tradeoffs required by current decisions) versus how should they respond, and what processes will allow them to respond as they should, to that question. Gaps between what is expected and what may be observed, given current motivational mechanism, can be identified by asking how the current motivational systems align with desired responses. New motivational mechanisms may need to be designed to ensure that behavior changes throughout the organization, thereby transforming its culture.
Finally, in moving to the bottom right-hand quadrant (Q4), the organization begins to implement the plans designed in Q3 to achieve the desired changes. Implementation is best undertaken via small and/or pilot projects (as seen in the “small-wins strategy ”) that can be adequately supported. Successful endeavors can then be implemented across the organization. It is vitally important that at this stage all changes be well supported with appropriate resources (training, restructuring of work, jobs and roles, performance evaluations, and compensation). Without the availability of sufficient or appropriate resources, any efforts to move an organization on the road to sustainability are likely to fail. Since lasting change requires empowerment of those who carry out the day-to-day actions to change their behavior, it is crucial that those leading such an effort do not impose their views. Rather, they should act as mentors who build the bridges needed for the organization to undertake a meaningful journey through the four quadrants.
Businesses are expected to be organizations focused on creating shareholder wealth, wherein the decision-makers, using the current frames afforded by games and war, consider each choice, decision, or action as either resulting in a “win” or a “loss.” A win enhances shareholder wealth, while a loss reduces it. Given the strong human tendency for loss aversion, and for losses to always loom larger than gains, it is quite logical then that businesses wish to win at all costs. The resulting calculative mind-set, however, has been shown to lead to less ethical actions, reduced concerns with consequences of one’s decision for others, and greater likelihood of cheating to ensure a win (Wang et al. 2014). The current language of business (whether thought of as accounting, war, or games) frames decisions as wins and encourages being “analytical” by focusing only on measurable outcomes, perpetuating the short-term unsustainable focus on shareholder wealth creation. Given climate change and impending resource scarcity due to environmental degradation, it is time for a new, more holistic language of business – one that has its roots in the arts and can broaden the perspectives of managers regarding their vital role in sustainability .
A new language for business leading to a refocus by corporations on genuine efforts towards greater sustainable development needs support from larger elements in society, especially from politicians and educators. The Trump administration has been criticized for deleting all mention of climate change and sustainability from its whitehouse.gov website in an attempt to communicate that there is no such concern. Similarly, in a state at high risk for beach erosion and flooding, officials working for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection were apparently banned from using the terms “climate change,” “global warming,” or sustainability” (Korten 2015). Politicians use a strategy in which denying a phenomenon rules out its very existence. When politicians downplay the significance of climate change by referring to it as an economic and technical issue without addressing its human and social implications, it becomes difficult for people to have a meaningful, inclusive discussion about mitigating the risks and adapting to the consequences of climate change.
Much is lacking within business schools as well. Giacalone (2004, p. 416) lamented, “Our fundamental business curriculum has no higher order ideals … We teach students a simple pay-off matrix: Increase the company’s wealth and improve the chances of increasing your own affluence and status. In our lesson plans, there is no selflessness, no objective for the non-financial, collective improvement of our world, and no generative aspiration to leave behind a better world for those who follow.” Unfortunately, research has shown that materialistic values are related to lower levels of organizational citizenship behavior and higher levels of interpersonal deviance. By focusing exclusively on rationality and profit-based metrics, are business schools inadvertently teaching business students about self-interest, expediency and profit maximization at the cost of sustainable growth?
According to a Chinese proverb, “may we live in interesting times,” and these are indeed interesting times that pose interesting issues of long-term sustainability of our planet. If they are to be addressed and resolved in a timely manner, there is an urgent need to transition away from traditional means of framing business, which have included the worlds of accounting, warfare, and games, resulting in a calculative mindset where decisions are made solely on the basis of operating expenses, revenues, and profits. Businesses should adopt a more holistic view of their raison d’être, one that focuses on triple bottom line performance and uses additional criteria, such as percentage of suppliers that have goals in place to reduce GHG emissions, yearly fixed donations to charitable causes, and percentage of directors elected by employees, to assess their contributions to society as a whole.
A reflection on self, a concern for others, and a consideration of the common good convert decision makers from game-players and warriors to humans who bring with them the capacity for analysis but also the capacity for concern for goals that go beyond monetary to include social and environmental goals. It creates the basis of holistic and sustainable decision making and is a fundamental step on the path towards achieving Pope Francis’ goal of addressing today’s complex problems with “a new and universal solidarity.”
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