31 August 2011 – The world lost a remarkable green leader recently, with the passing of Ray Anderson in the United States.
Ray founded Interface in 1973, now the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet.
He was often called the “greenest CEO in America” as he crusaded to transform his billion-dollar carpet manufacturing company into a sustainable enterprise.
His passing was marked by the President and CEO of US Green Building Council, Rick Fedrizzi, with the words: “If there was a Dictionary of Green Building, Ray Anderson is whose picture you’d probably see alongside the word ‘leader’.”
While social theorists continue to debate whether great leaders are born or made, Ray Anderson serves as an outstanding example of “authentic” leadership.
Authentic leaders have integrity, a strong sense of purpose and a deep commitment to building enduring organisations.
Authentic leaders lead with their hearts, not just their heads.
Ray’s “spear to the chest” moment is legendary. While reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce in 1994, he gained insight into how business practices could damage the environment and realised that he was a “plunderer of the earth”.
From that point, he pursued what he called “Mission Zero”. Under Ray’s leadership, Interface set its sights on the goal of zero environmental impact by 2020 through the use of recycled materials, renewable energy sources and by eliminating petroleum from its manufacturing process altogether.
“If we’re successful,” Ray said in 1997, “we’ll spend the rest of our days harvesting yester-year’s carpets and other petro-chemically derived products, and recycling them into new materials; and converting sunlight into energy; with zero scrap going to the landfill and zero emissions into the ecosystem.”
It’s important to remember that Interface had been successfully operating for nearly a quarter of a century. Interface’s sustainable transformation required a comprehensive, system-wide approach.
And, funnily enough, the sky did not fall in.
Profits went up, not down. Clients bought more, rather than less. Employees’ loyalty grew, not
The most extraordinary and influential element to Ray’s leadership was the daily demonstration that environmental sustainability and economic prosperity could go hand-in-hand. He showed us that a company can “‘do well by doing good.”
Leading by example is one of the most important ways to affect change. By having the courage to go where angels fear to tread, unorthodox leaders are able to shape tomorrow rather than repeat today.
Ray Anderson’s story is also a reminder that personal ethics cannot be separated from professional ethics, and that true leadership starts with a strong set of guiding principles. Ray wasn’t just a dreamer – he was a doer. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “we must be the change we wish to see in the world.”