How values, conscious culture and inner leadership development are necessary for a sustainable future.

By Phil Clothier

We never really know the ripples and impact of our words and actions.

Just imagine that you are walking down the street, you pop a sweet into your mouth and without thinking you discard the plastic wrapper on the pavement. Two minutes later you shout angrily at a neighbour.

The plastic wrapper gets washed into a river and out to sea where it is swallowed by a turtle who mistook it for a jellyfish.  The turtle slowly dies from starvation because its digestive system is blocked with plastic.  And your neighbour, he is deeply hurt by your outburst and becomes moody and withdrawn for the rest of the day.  He takes it out on his wife and children.

In another version of this street scenario, you see some discarded litter, pick it up and put it into the recycling.  As you walk a little further you see the same neighbour but this time you smile warmly and say something caring and encouraging that lifts his day.

In this story the litter represents how we treat nature and the neighbour represents how we treat humanity.

Every thought, word and action makes a difference, either positively or negatively. Nothing is neutral. Even on a very small scale, our thoughts (or thoughtlessness), words and actions make a difference and have ripple effects far beyond what we can see.

During a radio interview in 2015, Gus Speth, (US Advisor on climate change and Yale Professor) said:-

“I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change.  I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong.

The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.  And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

There is no doubt that all fields of science including information technology, engineering, agriculture, medicine, etc have a significant role to play in creating a sustainable future for humanity.  However, I completely agree with Gus that the biggest blocks to creating a sustainable future are not technical or scientific, they are the blocks and fears in our minds and hearts.   When we focus on the inner healing of our minds, hearts and cultures, our outer work will come from a place of peace and integrity and will be far more effective and powerful.

The 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic has been a sharp shock to society and business.  It has been a warning to humanity for future disruptions such as climate change, plastics pollution, biodiversity collapse and social inequality.

The good news is that the UN has a remarkable plan to address these challenges. The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the ultimate expression of humanity’s needs at this moment in history.   The UN definition of sustainability puts human needs (values) right at the centre. Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

If I were to boil the SDGs down to two simple intentions they would be.

  • To create conditions for every human being on earth to have the opportunity to experience wellbeing, contentment and peace
  • For humanity to live in harmony with nature, the planet and all life on earth

Let’s dig a little deeper to see how leadership, culture and sustainability are linked.

Culture is a combination of the individual and collective beliefs, thoughts, words and actions of an organisation, community or society.  To understand this more clearly, let’s consider the comparison between Hitler and Gandhi and the impacts of their individual beliefs, thoughts, words and actions on their nations and the world.

Hitler promoted a culture of superiority, separation and dominance at any cost.  His beliefs, thoughts, words and actions influenced many people in his nation, and allies of the Nazi regime to cause devastating human suffering and destruction to the natural world on an unimaginable scale. While Adolf Hitler was on the extreme right of the political spectrum, it is not right of left wing politics that are harmful.  Instead the damage largely comes from fear driven leaders whose own lack of inner peace, leaks out and causes such harm and suffering for others.  As my teacher says “What lies in the heart will show”.

Gandhi, on the other hand, promoted a culture of truth, peace, unity and the sacredness and wellbeing of all life on earth.  He had remarkable courage to stand up against authoritarian regimes who were causing harm and suffering.  He lived his life by the simple and powerful concept of Satyagraha which means “Truth Force”.  He famously encouraged all people to “be the change you wish to see in the world”.  Gandhi’s influence of peace, unity and compassion is still very much alive and inspiring courageous, caring action every day that is helping to make life better for all.

OK, these are fairly extreme examples, but they do show that the values, beliefs and inner state of individuals, and especially leaders, has an influence on culture (teams, organisations, communities and nations), and in turn those cultures have an impact on both humanity and the environment.

The following five simple statements, based on human needs, show how closely culture and sustainability are woven:-

  • “A culture of peace is one in which all people belonging to a group are able to get their needs met.”  Richard Barrett (2019)
  • “Sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (UN Definition of Sustainable Development)
  • We value what we need.
  • The UN Sustainable Development Goals are the ultimate expression of humanity’s (and the environment’s) needs at this moment in history.
  • Organisations are a wholly owned subsidiary of society. Society is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.  If society or the environment crash, organisations will crash. Caring for the needs of all stakeholders, especially the environment, is not a nice philanthropic idea, it is a strategic organisational imperative.

There are thousands of organisations who have signed up to the UN SDGs and many of them are reviewing every aspect of the purpose, products, services, production methods, energy consumption and supply chains to build a better more sustainable business and make a positive contribution to society and the environment.  These are all vitally important considerations but the key to unlocking the true positive impact of these efforts is to focus on values and culture.

In surveys of the employees of two organisations in the finance sector, they selected these values and behaviours to describe their day to day experience of the culture.

Employees experience of organisation A Employees experience of organisation B
client satisfaction
making a difference
financial stability
blame (L)
short term focus (L)
internal competition (L)
buck passing (L)
risk averse (L)
customer satisfaction
information hoarding (L)
(L) = Potentially limiting Values

Without knowing anything about the products, services, purpose etc, of these two organisations:

  • Which would you prefer to work at?
  • Which induces more stress and mental health problems?
  • Which experiences more fear and dysfunction from the leaders?
  • Which has more fun, trust and open communication between leaders and employees?
  • Which is more profitable and sustainable?
  • Which will be having a more positive impact on society and the environment?

Through this example it is possible to see how our values and behaviours become our culture, and the ripples of our culture can make either a positive or negative difference to …… well, everything really.

A growing body of research is showing that organisations who focus their purpose, products and services on solving real problems for people and delivering the SDGs are experiencing many benefits such as highly engaged employees, passionately loyal customers, better brand reputation, lower costs and higher profits.  Their leaders sleep better at night knowing that they are doing less harm and their products and services are focused on addressing the needs of humanity and the planet.

A few years ago, I was invited to the Vatican in Rome to be part of a team facilitating a dialogue between the church, global banking leaders and global industry leaders.  It quickly became clear that there was a high level of agreement between the cardinals, priests and executives who unanimously wanted to create a more caring, compassionate, equitable and sustainable world. I will never forget the powerful phrase that emerged from that meeting.

“Goods that are really good and services that truly serve”.

As I look into the deeper meaning of this statement, I see three main principles and intentions which are already held by the church and medical sector and I predict will become baked into organisational purpose, products and services in the future:

  • Do no harm
  • Alleviate suffering
  • Facilitate healing & thriving

To what extent does your organisation create goods that are really good and services that truly serve?

Finally, I would like to share the work of my friend, Kim Polman. Kim has established an inspiring foundation called Reboot the Future. They promote one simple principle which comes from the ancient texts of every world religion. It is a simple test that can be held up for everything that unifies us as humanity and it combines all the most important core human values. It can be applied in our homes, our teams and our workplaces and you can start today.

The principle is called The Golden Rule and it simply says “Treat others and the planet as you would wish to be treated”

About the Author

Phil Clothier is a team member (and former CEO) of Barrett Values Centre.  I work with leaders and change agents to bring about values based, ethical and sustainable cultural transformation.

I have worked with corporations, governments and NGOs around the world and have been an advisor on National Values Assessments in over 25 countries. In Latvia, Sweden and Iceland the results of the values assessments have been instrumental in reorienting public policies.

My main focus now is inspiring and supporting leadership development and cultural transformation in service of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

I also know that my personal  job is very simple, to focus on inner peace.  (Easier said than done!)

I am married, with two children and an active member of the local village community (handy with a shovel and litter picker).

Location:  Rossendale, Lancashire, UK


Web sites: (for a free Personal Values Assessment)


Co-author of: Get Connected. A Practical Guide to Grow a Desired Culture


Organisational Culture and Values
Leadership Values and Development
Cultural aspect of sustainability (UN SDGs)

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