Three seemingly disparate events prompted this post (in order of occurrence):
1. A trip to NYC from DC on Amtrak
2. Attending the Women’s Sports Foundation annual gala dinner
3. Walmart’s announcement of their global commitment to sustainable food and the Heritage Agriculture program
In different ways each of these remind me that leadership and “top down” commitment can have dramatic positive impact on the economy, people, the planet, and the world. GlobalGiving is built on the premise that “bottom up” solutions need air time and support, and can often be more impactful than “central planning.” I agree. But we also recognize the reality of the power of large institutions to make change happen fast. At scale. If leadership is committed to change. What do these three events tell us?
Amtrak is essentially a monopoly in rail transportation in the United States. Despite whining about its sustainability, it’s website says, it “operates a nationwide rail network, serving over 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces on over 21,000 miles of routes, with more than 19,000 employees. It is the nation’s only high speed intercity passenger rail provider….”
But – hello! – they can’t put some recycling bins in their trains? Seriously. I found myself arriving in NYC, and then 24 hours later in Washington DC, carrying my newspaper, magazines, and empty water bottles back to my office so that they could be recycled. Here’s what Amtrak says on their embarrassingly un-updated website: “By the end of 2009, all café and lounge cars throughout the Amtrak system will have a receptacle designated for collection of plastic and glass bottles as well as aluminum cans.” Except I traveled on Amtrak on October 12th and 13th, 2010. No recycling bins. GlobalGiving has 30 people. We are able to figure out how to recycle. Kimpton Hotels have figured it out. Even WMATA, the much aligned Washington DC metro overseer, has Newspaper recycling bins in each station. It’s about top-down commitment and leadership. Don’t just say it on your website. Do it. Consumers care.
In my short trip to NYC I attended the Annual Salute to Women in Sports, held by the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF). The WSF was started by Billie Jean King about 35 years ago. In those days women who participated in sports were somewhat of an anomaly. And Title IX had just been passed. And Billie Jean was an icon.
I was a Title IX baby for sure. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t participate in high school and college sports. But I have Billie Jean King, Donna De Varona and a small cadre of risk-taking leaders to thank for my life-influencing exposure and involvement in organized athletics. Not everybody loved them. They were called “amazons.” They were told they should stay home and take care of their husbands and children. But they took a stand and used the power of their positions and pushed. Influenced. Set the table for amazing athletes and women like Mia Hamm, Annika Sorenstam, and Serena and Venus Williams. Leadership.
On Thursday of last week, Walmart’s announcement of its enhanced commitment to sustainable agriculture raised some eyebrows, mostly from the skeptics. But as long ago as 2007 Michael Strong posited that Walmart’s decisions regarding the broader global community could have significantly more lasting impact than its detractors care to admit. With the largest retail global reach on the planet, and incentives to executives to follow the sustainability mantra, Walmart could conceivably alter the prospects of thousands of family farms around the world. And this decision comes from the top, just like its promise in 2005 to 1. To be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy, 2. To create zero waste, and 3. To sell products that sustain our resources and environment.
Are they there yet? No. Are they continually defying expectation and making changes that have unmeasurable ripple effect? Yes. And it’s all been driven from the top, starting with an epiphany the CEO of Walmart had on a trip overseas. They have been on a march to impact ever since.
Sometimes it takes a visionary or risk-taking leader to move an organization, or a society, forward. And equally, those in power who fail to take action and “make change happen” are destined to be remembered for their weakness and inaction.