It is not often I think Hollywood does much right, but in terms of making money, they know exactly how to capture the 30-something audience with remakes of superhero movies. My husband, for example, can’t get enough. While reminiscing over the untold tales deep within his comic book collection, he maps out a plan for every upcoming IMAX, 3D superhero experience. Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, the Dark Knight. It doesn’t matter if it’s Marvel or DC, if a superhero movie is in the making, my husband is stocking up on Raisinets. I told him to get ready because the next blockbuster is on its way and it features a whole new breed of superheroes: sustainability superheroes.
In his newly released book, Sustainable Frontiers, Wayne Visser, Vice President of Sustainability Services at Omnex and Director of publishing company Kaleidoscope Futures, presents eight keys to “unlocking transformational change through business, leadership, and innovation.” It’s an easy and engaging read and I highly recommend it, particularly for anyone working within an organization who may be having a hard time grasping the importance of sustainable operations. Visser goes beyond corporate social responsibility and explains why, despite reporting mechanisms and accountability metrics, change relies on bold leaders.
However, having read dozens of books on leadership during my MBA in Managing for Sustainability, I wasn’t expecting Visser to say anything new. Then I turned to the section on Sustainability Superheroes. This phrase caught my attention.
Deep down, don’t all of us in this movement want to be considered a superhero?
Could superhero also be synonymous with the trendy title “change agent?” Regardless, it’s constantly a challenge for me and many of us who have devoted our careers to sustainability to feel like we are making enough change. I’m continually assessing whether or not I should move into a different career in order to make a bigger impact. Why do we choose careers in sustainability in the first place? Can we solve the most pressing problems like food and water crises, pollution, climate change, and human trafficking by confidently wearing our unique, sustainability superhero capes?
Visser says yes. Unlocking change is not only about what we do, but about “tapping into our own power.” According to Visser, we “do” sustainability because of six main motivators; the first being that it gives us purpose-filled lives. Other influencers include the thrill of solving a new challenge, creating new strategies, and empowering others. He categorizes these drivers into four archetypes of sustainability superheroes or the Fantastic Four: Expert; Facilitator; Catalyst; Activist.
Experts have a copious understanding of one specific problem. They approach it from a technical or scientific angle, and are satisfied from constant learning and self-development. A modern-day sustainability expert superhero, according to Visser, is someone like Siyabulela Lethuxolo Xuza, the NASA-decorated South African rocket scientist working on solar energy, or Mathis Wackernagel, founder of the Global Footprint Network.
Facilitators, however, use their knowledge to empower others to make change. “Facilitators are often people without a high profile,” says Visser. “Elle Carberry, Co-Founder & Managing Director of China Greentech Initiative and Roberto Salazar, founder of the Hexagon Dialogue Toolkit in Ecuador, are two examples.”
Catalysts, like Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, or Pope Francis, have a vision for shifting an organization in a new direction. They are pragmatic, make the business case for sustainability, and use their political skills to persuade others to change strategies.
Activists, on the other hand, use their strong feelings about justice to question the status quo and challenge others to a more idealistic vision of the future. Burmese political activist Aung San Suu Kyi, or Boyan Slat, inventor of the Ocean Cleanup Array, represent Sustainability Activist Heroes. “Among big corporates, activists are typically in short supply, because they ask difficult questions, rock the boat, and get frustrated at the pace of change,” says Visser.
Though there are no formal examples of the Expert, Facilitator, Catalyst, or Activist working as the Fantastic Four, Visser says these archetypes are collaborating through cross-sector platforms like the Prince of Wales's Corporate Leaders Group on climate change, or the Natural Capital Leaders Platform run by the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.
“It’s a PhD waiting to happen,” says Visser.
Visser knew he was a Sustainability Superhero in 1990 when he attended a conference in Japan organized by the international economics and commerce students’ organization, AIESEC, on global business and sustainable development. The purpose of the conference was to capture the voices of young leaders as input to the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
“It was when I realized not only that ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ but that it was up to us, as the ‘next generation’ to solve that problem,” says Visser.
Though Visser has worn all four superhero capes at various points in his sustainability career, he views himself first and foremost as an Expert.
“What motivates me at a deep level is to learn continuously and to share that learning with others. Maybe the byline of my bio gives a clue: "a professional idea-monger, storyteller, and meme-weaver,” says Visser.
Visser affirms the quandary I ponder every day: Am I making enough change? Is it up to me to adapt my skill set in order to meet the pressing needs of the world? Will I find deeper satisfaction if I wear a different, less-tailored, cape? No. Visser emboldens us to be who we are because it’s the most effective way to “do” sustainability.
“If we each recognize our type, and play to its strengths, we will be more effective as change agents. If we find others that complement us—ideally making up the Fantastic Four—that makes for a kick-ass dream team for transformational change” says Visser.