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Sustainability

Jun 10, 2024

Why purposeful leadership is the missing link in Sustainability: Rajeev Peshawaria

Why purposeful leadership is the missing link in Sustainability: Rajeev Peshawaria

Why purposeful leadership is the missing link in Sustainability: Rajeev Peshawaria

Rajeev Peshawaria, author, Sustainable Sustainability, spoke to Team Reblue on how steward leadership and a purpose-driven approach can foster the development of sustainable organizations with lasting legacies.

Rajeev Peshawaria is the CEO of Stewardship Asia Centre, Singapore and President of Leadership Energy Consulting Company in Seattle. With a distinguished career, he has held prominent roles such as Chief Learning Officer at Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley, and Head of Pine Street for Europe & Asia at Goldman Sachs. Rajeev is also an acclaimed keynote and TEDx speaker, and the author of four books, including the Wall Street Journal bestseller Open Source Leadership.

His latest book, Sustainable Sustainability, challenges the effectiveness of current frameworks like ESG and highlights critical missing elements. Rajeev's extensive global experience includes advising top-tier clients like Deutsche Bank, HSBC, and the World Bank. He has been recognized as one of the Top 100 Global Thought Leaders for Trustworthy Business and continues to influence the fields of sustainability and leadership development.

Rajeev Peshawaria shared his insights with the Reblue team on how steward leadership and a purpose-driven approach can foster the development of sustainable organizations with lasting legacies. His long-term perspective, as opposed to a short-term focus, elucidates how successful companies like the Tata Group achieve profitability while embedding sustainability into their core business strategies.

Team Reblue: What inspired you to write "Sustainable Sustainability" and delve into the concept of steward leadership?

Rajeev Peshawaria: So you know, the short answer is that I was disturbed by the fact that we are trying to address a leadership issue or rather solve a leadership issue with money, incentives and regulation. So that's the short answer.
The long answer is that, you know, money incentives and regulation are definitely not producing the kind of urgent innovation we need to solve for existential challenges that humanity is facing right now.
There are $43 trillion in ESG assets and you ask yourself how much of those 43 trillion is actually going towards environmental or social action?
The answer is - very little. And there are incentives galore.
I mean, now the latest fad is to link CEO compensation with ESG markers and the the more you come you achieve ESG markers, are bigger your bonus and that's creating rampant greenwashing. And more than 100 countries have passed ESG related legislation and people are check boxing or finding loopholes.
So the only way to solve for income inequality, for climate change, for misuse of technology is to use a leadership approach that is fit for the 21st century.
So that was my motivation.

Team Reblue: Can you elaborate on the concept of ESL and its significance in today's business environment? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: So, what the world is doing is looking at what can we do.
And so governments are saying let's pass new laws.
The business world is saying let's create new incentives for good behavior and the finance industry is saying let's create money and capital available, right?
We instead looked at, and yet we see all kinds of bad behavior.

But we looked at 100 companies who are actually making a difference on environmental and social issues.
We studied them in detail and we tried to understand why are they doing it and how are they doing. And we found they're not doing it because of cheaper capital.
They're not doing it because of incentives.
They're not doing it because of regulation.
They're doing it because they want to do it.
They're doing it with a very different kind of leadership intent based on the idea, for example, of interdependence.
Interdependence is a belief that the more I do for society, the more my business or my profession is going to be successful.
The more I give, the more I get.
So these business leaders wanted to make money, but they wanted to make money by providing tangible value, or rather just at honest and just pricing to society and make money that way rather than saying how much maximum money can we make, they ask, what are the biggest pain points of society?
How can we solve those profitably?
Meaning give society what it needs at a reasonable price and still make a lot of profit for ourselves.
So we studied these hundred companies and came across the fact that they had these four ideas in common interdependence, long term view, which is self explanatory.
Taking ownership for today's existential challenges and saying as a business executive, I'm going to do my bit, I take ownership for today's existential challenges and creative resilience, meaning I will not give up until I find innovative solutions, innovative, profitable solutions.
And they pursued this purpose, which said that “I don't want to just make money for my shareholder or for myself. I want to create a collective better future for all sections of society”
So because we found these things in common between these hundred companies, we said that it's all about leadership.
It's not about capital, incentives, regulation.
Hence, we are arguing that ESG must upgrade to ESL, where L stands for leadership, specifically steward leadership.

Team Reblue: The book’s name “Sustainable Sustainability” itself speaks volume about it. We would love to know what made you come up with this name as well as your inspiration to write the book. 

Rajeev Peshawaria: So I was talking to a friend of mine who is who in the sustainability space over a drink and we were chatting about the book that I was writing.
So we didn't have a title at that time.
So I told him what we were trying to do.
He made a comment. He said Rajeev it sounds to me that you are trying to make sustainability itself sustainable because the current efforts are not working.
So I said say that again, and he repeated himself.
I said say that again, and he repeated himself again.
So the working title became making sustainability sustainable and that's what we went into the publishers with.

But then my editor actually came up with saying actually sustainable sustainability might be even more specific. And instantly, I said, yeah, that's even better than making sustainability sustainable.
So that's the genesis.

Team Reblue: Innovation often requires significant upfront investment.  For example, Silicon Valley’s innovation culture has a lot to thank the US Federal Government for the Department of Defense. Government contracts and grants, particularly from the Department of Defense during the Cold War, provided crucial funding for research and development. DARPA funded projects with a long-term vision but were highly risky financially, even if the commercial applications weren't immediately apparent. Do you believe true innovations related to Sustainability will require government funding with visionary high-risk, high reward thinking on part of elected leaders? Are there examples of this across the world currently? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: About two-thirds of the world's top 100 economies consist of corporations rather than governments. While governments need to allocate funds for sustainability projects, the active involvement of businesses is crucial to achieving scalable positive outcomes. Encouragingly, there are successful instances of collaboration between governments and the private sector in environmental conservation efforts. Sweden serves as a notable example of this cooperative approach.


'Rather than solely advocating for consuming less, it's essential to promote sustainable consumption practices that prioritize efficiency, resource conservation, and equitable distribution of resources.'


Team Reblue: As an addendum to the earlier question, do you see venture capital (which itself had stepped in to take the DoD’s role in the case of Silicon Valley) or private funds be willing to fund true innovations? With the caveat that they themselves might not be able to reap the full benefits of the things they fund? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: In Singapore, a growing number of family offices are increasingly setting up shop, contributing to the landscape of philanthropic capital. Philanthropic capital is playing a role in funding innovative solutions aimed at addressing the world’s challenges on climate and poverty. 

Team Reblue: Should consuming less be a goal? The answer to a Western audience might seem clear – we should consume less. But developing economies, which have seen massive growth based upon rising consumption, how should these countries address this? Is there an alternative path that can bring millions to a certain level of prosperity without following the consumption model? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: Numerous developing economies have seen significant growth driven by rising consumption levels. This growth has been instrumental in elevating millions from poverty and granting access to essential goods and services. Therefore, urging for reduced consumption without accounting for these nations’ distinct contexts may hinder their development strides and prolong inequality.

Rather than solely advocating for consuming less, it's essential to promote sustainable consumption practices that prioritize efficiency, resource conservation, and equitable distribution of resources. Developing economies can pursue alternative paths to prosperity that focus on sustainable development, innovation, and inclusive economic growth.

Team Reblue: You talk about values-based leadership as part of ESL (L standing for leadership as a subset of ‘Steward Leadership’). How does this work in real-life in hyper-competitive markets? Apart from the leaders themselves (C-Suite etc), how should stakeholders (shareholders) think about this? Are there any incentives that work to make this happen?  

Rajeev Peshawaria: To clarify, the book says governance (G) is a subset of Steward Leadership. Steward Leadership is characterised by four core values: interdependence, a long-term view, an ownership mentality and creative resilience (read more here: https://www.stewardshipasia.com.sg/who-we-are/steward-leadership-compass). We believe that these intrinsic drivers are crucial for the effectiveness of extrinsic mechanisms such as rules, reporting frameworks and measurement tools. 

Team Reblue: As mentioned in the survey that you conducted, only 13 per cent respondents believe that the corporate world is extremely sincere about going beyond rules and regulations to proactively create solutions. What according to you can change this number to a higher percentage? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: Awareness and education are vital to drive change. At SAC, we offer executive education programs designed to help organisations understand the importance of steward leadership. Additionally, we have established a crowd-sourced content and community hub, www.stewardshipcommons.com, to spread awareness and knowledge and to drive behaviour change. These initiatives reflect SAC’s commitment and initiatives, yet it’s imperative for every individual to take ownership and do their part to make a significant impact.

Team Reblue: The four steward values are Interdependence, Long-term view, Ownership mentality and Creative resilience. Can you elaborate more on how one can implement these values in their personal lives as well as in their organisations?

Rajeev Peshawaria: Interdependence is to consider the broader impact of your actions and ensure that everyone wins not just you. Prioritise long-term goals over instant gratification and take ownership to make stewardship happen on an individual basis, such as avoiding the use of plastics or practising inclusivity in meetings. Also, cultivate resilience in the face of challenges because stewardship isn’t easy. Our Steward Leadership Compass, which is a step-by-step practical framework, is applicable for both individuals and organizations.


'We are not against regulations; they’re crucial for maintaining law and order and minimising harm. However, their primary focus is often on minimising harm rather than maximising good. Governments must balance regulations with a values-based approach.'


Team Reblue: A lot of companies get really good, value-invested leaders with good intentions on board to further their sustainability goals. But when things change (financially), those same leaders have to back down. Or leadership changes and rolls back what was in place. 

How do organisations address this? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: Market volatility can significantly affect an organisation’s strategy, sometimes necessitating a temporary rollback to ensure its survival and uphold job security for many. It’s crucial for new leaders to grasp that, for the organisation’s long-term success, stewardship’s purpose need does not conflict with profit. If anything, evidence suggests the opposite. In today’s era of transparency, where ordinary individuals like you and me wield extraordinary access to information, customers and consumers expect companies to demonstrate stewardship behaviours. Failure to do so may result in consumers shunning products, particularly if alternatives from compliant companies are readily available.

Team Reblue: One of our moonshot goals as a company is to help companies collaborate with each other on sustainability goals. We are some ways away from that, but we want to create a model that helps companies sustainably (excuse the pun), work together. That’s why your view on Interdependence and Long-term view was super intriguing for us. You say that successful companies embed environmental and social sustainability in their strategy, execution, and culture. They show values of interdependence, ownership mentality, long-term orientation, and creative resilience. The other concept that really struck a note was business ecosystems. 

Would this type of cooperation be possible between companies too? How would it look like in practice, if it were possible? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: The book laid out six applicable guidelines:   

  1. Credible ambition

  2. Complementary foundation partners

  3. Clear roadmap

  4. Clear value proposition for all partners

  5. Minimise transaction costs and barriers

  6. Supporting sub-ecosystem

(You may read more in the book.)

Facilitating collaboration among companies on sustainability goals is feasible, ensuring cooperation such as sharing best practices, resources, and expertise, addressing common challenges such as reducing carbon emissions or promoting sustainable supply chains. Companies can work together on initiatives within or across industries, innovating new sustainable solutions. 

Team Reblue: You are clear that we all should be thinking beyond regulations when it comes to sustainability. Having said that, how do you reimagine regulations? Which countries do regulations well in terms of sustainability and why does it work? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: We are not against regulations; they’re crucial for maintaining law and order and minimising harm. However, their primary focus is often on minimising harm rather than maximising good. Governments must balance regulations with a values-based approach. 

Team Reblue: You must meet a lot of leaders as part of your work. In your opinion, who are the leaders who currently embody the values that ESL stands for? How does this person/s think like at the human motivation level? How do they act and communicate their vision on a tactical basis? How do they gather allies? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: In the book, we have included case studies featuring companies such as Faber Castell, The Tata Group, Mars Incorporated, and many more. These case studies offer valuable reference points for readers on how leaders communicate their vision.

Team Reblue: To add to the above questions, have you met lower-level leadership who are doing great work at a lower level in the corporate hierarchy? This is very interesting for us as we see highly motivated teams within larger sustainability teams, kind of skunk work teams, who work with little resources but still want to and do good work. Do you have any words of advice for such teams and their leaders? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: They should ensure their efforts are recognised. Our SL25 initiative is aimed at acknowledging and amplifying the quiet champions who are making a difference in this world.

Team Reblue: Is there a flaw within human nature itself that needs to be addressed? I find this Sean Parker quote very interesting (former President of Facebook) which he says in the movie the Social Dilemma about how social networks grew, “You're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. I think the inventors, creators… all these people understood this consciously, and we did it anyway.” To my question, how can we override our human tendencies of greed and everything that comes along with it? Are there societies in the world who have managed to do this at a real level (without exporting the problems out of their geographies)? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: To address inherent flaws like greed, education and societal structures are paramount. Societies, like those in Scandinavia, prioritise equity and justice, showcasing effective strategies. However, systemic change demands a values-based revolution to foster collaboration, stewardship, accountability and transparency. Ultimately, overcoming human tendencies toward greed requires self-awareness and creative resilience and adherence to the ethos of doing well by doing good regardless of bad and good times.

Team Reblue: How do we stop the next generation from making the same mistakes that we have done over the last 200 years? Today’s children and young people face unfiltered calls to consume and the linking of self-worth with consumption. For example, many young people in countries with low per capita incomes, with a monthly salary under USD 1000, will buy a thousand-dollar phone on instalments. Children under 10 are being pitched to constantly to get more things.  How do we get a different model of thinking in front of them at scale? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: To steer future generations towards the right path, comprehensive education reforms are needed to teach critical thinking, financial literacy, and environmental awareness with stewardship values forming the foundation of decision-making. Media literacy programs can help children critically evaluate advertising. By promoting values like well-being and sustainability, we can instil a mindset that prioritise responsible consumption at scale.

Team Reblue: We are based out of Pune which is an industrial hub near Mumbai. Back in the 60s and 70s, many of companies set up large factories spread over hundreds of acres. These were essentially mini towns where employees got housing, hospitals, entertainment, everything within their compounds. Some of these still exist today here in Pune. These factory towns were common across India (Jamshedpur of Tata Steel being another example). America also has had this as a big part of its history. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but isn’t that a very sustainable community-based model of operating? We don’t see this as much anymore, do we? Is that a model worth exploring? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: Certainly, Pune, as an industrial hub near Mumbai, has a history of large factories dating back to the 60s and 70s. These factories were self-contained communities offering housing, healthcare, and more within their compounds. While less common today, this community-based approach offers a sustainable model worth revisiting. Integrating work, living, and leisure spaces can reduce commuting and promote shared resources, fostering more sustainable and cohesive communities for the future.

Team Reblue: Are steward leaders born or made? How can organisations spot these leaders within their own organisations? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: While some individuals may naturally possess certain qualities associated with stewardship, I strongly believe that these traits can also be developed and nurtured through education, and mentorship. As mentioned, we provide executive education and customised programmes to enable companies to integrate the stewardship mindset and enable sustainability.

Organisations can identify potential steward leaders within their ranks by looking for certain key attributes and behaviours based on our Steward Leadership Compass. We also believe in experiential learning. Later this year, we are bringing some senior executives to the Doi Tung Development Project in the Chiang Rai Province of Thailand. Over three decades ago, Doi Tung in Mae Chan District, Chiang Rai Province, was characterised by barren hillsides and dire living conditions for its villagers, who were trapped in a cycle of poverty and illicit livelihoods such as drug cultivation and sex trafficking. The arrival of Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra, the Princess Mother in 1987, marked a pivotal moment. Recognising poverty and a lack of opportunity as the root cause of issues, she initiated the Doi Tung Development Project (DTDP) intending to break the vicious cycle of "sickness, poverty, and ignorance." 

Team Reblue: I loved the stories about Unilever’s former CEO Paul Polman and Morgan Stanley’s former CEO John Mack. Things really did get bad before they got better but they stuck to it. That makes me curious, how do we, as individuals, become steward leaders? The Steward Leadership Compass is a great guide of course but I am curious as to what your advice be to younger people under 30 who are working corporate jobs with all that it could entail. 

Rajeev Peshawaria: It's a great question. Unilever is definitely facing pressure now from activist investors that you're going too far.

This whole purpose journey right now, why does Dove soap need to have its own purpose?
And why does you know mayonnaise need to have its own purpose statement?
Each brand, each product.
So I think it's a question of balance.
I think it's a question of strategy.
How far you take it, you can easily overdo anything, and that's what the problem with Unilever currently seems to be, that they are just getting too carried away and investors are saying, yeah, we are also sustainable.
But come on, you know, be reasonable here.
You guys are going crazy about it.
So the other point I will make is at the end of the day, steward leaders are not ok.
Investors will be investors.
They want a return on their money and they want the maximum return on their money as a steward leader, you are not running a charity.
You are still running a business, so to appeal to your investor, hey, take less growth or take less.
Profitability is not gonna work.
You're gonna get fired, right?

So what is the solution?
Well, show them a strategy, a growth strategy based on sustainability that investors can believe in.
That's what Paul Polman did.
He showed them, hey, there will be some dips in the first two years, but in the long run, I'm gonna give you much more returns than our current strategy or any other competitive strategy is gonna do.
And it's gonna solidify.
The company investors bought it in the case of his counterpart at Denon investors didn't buy it, and the board fired it right now.

Team Reblue: What is your advice to founders? If I am starting out a company today, how should I design my company? It seems to be it could be harder for companies to change course later than if the foundation itself was correct? What would be your advice? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: Have to create the culture in your company and by the way it's easier to do it from day one than to do it after 20 years before. Well, I've written a lot of stuff on culture, on organizational culture. You can look up my articles and you'll find a lot of stuff there, but the the the only thing that works with culture in an organization is one thing.

Walk the talk. Walk the talk. Walk the talk.

So if when people are trying to make a difficult decisions in your company, your employees and they ask, what would the founder do in this situation?

That should be so clear to them. They don't need to talk to you.

That is the kind of walk the talk you need to do that they don't even need to ask you. If they ask themselves, hey, they're dealing with this problem with this dilemma, what would he have done?

You have to be so good with walking the talk.

You have to be so good with your communication of what to talk, not just walk the talk, but talk the talk as well, in the sense that label and link when you notice good behavior in somebody, you label it.

Ohh wow, you are doing the right thing by the environment and tell that story to the rest of the company to labeling and linking in your communication is a great strategy but before that you have to be totally predictable in your own behavior because people will look towards the founder or the CEO to say to look for clues to behave and those who buy into your purpose and values will stay in the company and behave in that way.

Those who don't agree with you will leave.

And that's OK. 


'The future of sustainability will be characterised by collective action and shared responsibility, as stakeholders work together to create a more equitable, resilient, and sustainable world for future generations.'


Team Reblue: We love the idea of business ecosystems. It stems, as you mention, from the thought that ‘Socioeconomic challenges may require new types of organisations. You paraphrase that a business ecosystem is ‘a network of organizations and individuals that co-evolve their capabilities and roles and align their investments so as to create additional value and/or improve efficiency’. For a low-trust societies, there are challenges with creating such ecosystems. How would you go about it? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: In low-trust societies, creating business ecosystems necessitates tailored strategies. This involves establishing transparency and accountability through clear rules and oversight, fostering relationships based on mutual respect and open communication, facilitating knowledge-sharing and collaboration among participants, empowering local communities in decision-making processes, and demonstrating tangible benefits to build trust and credibility. 

Team Reblue: Speaking about DEI, your book references this quote ‘women are often over-mentored and under- sponsored.’ Could you elaborate? How can this be improved. 

Rajeev Peshawaria:There are many ways to close the gap such as promoting awareness and education, addressing bias and stereotypes, and improving the organisation’s DEI culture. These measures also require the integration of stewardship values to be effective. Among our SL25 honourees, some are doing just that. Please see here

Team Reblue: What advice would you give to business leaders who are looking to enhance their organization's sustainability efforts but may be facing challenges or resistance internally? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: For business leaders encountering challenges or resistance internally while striving to enhance sustainability efforts, I recommend several approaches:

  • Clearly articulate the business case for sustainability, highlighting the potential benefits in terms of cost savings, risk mitigation, and reputation enhancement.

  • Engage with stakeholders across the organisation to understand concerns and perspectives and involve employees in the decision-making process to foster buy-in and ownership.

  • Provide education and training on sustainability concepts and practices to empower employees with the knowledge and skills needed to contribute to sustainability initiatives.

  • Lead by example and demonstrate commitment to sustainability through visible actions and initiatives, inspiring others to follow suit.

Team Reblue: How can businesses ensure that their DEI initiatives are authentic and not just superficial gestures, especially in the context of sustainability reporting and corporate social responsibility? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: Again, this is about instilling stewardship values.

Team Reblue: Lastly, how do you see sustainability as a wider endeavour play out in the world over the next few decades? Paint us a picture of what you think the future holds. 

Rajeev Peshawaria: Looking ahead, sustainability will increasingly become a central focus for businesses, governments, and society over the next few decades. As awareness of environmental and social issues continues to grow, there will be greater pressure for organizations to adopt sustainable practices and embrace responsible business conduct. This shift will drive innovation and collaboration across sectors, leading to the development of innovative technologies, business models, and policy frameworks that prioritize sustainability and address pressing global challenges such as climate change, resource scarcity, and social inequality.
To me, the future of sustainability will be characterised by collective action and shared responsibility, as stakeholders work together to create a more equitable, resilient, and sustainable world for future generations.


Rajeev Peshawaria, author, Sustainable Sustainability, spoke to Team Reblue on how steward leadership and a purpose-driven approach can foster the development of sustainable organizations with lasting legacies.

Rajeev Peshawaria is the CEO of Stewardship Asia Centre, Singapore and President of Leadership Energy Consulting Company in Seattle. With a distinguished career, he has held prominent roles such as Chief Learning Officer at Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley, and Head of Pine Street for Europe & Asia at Goldman Sachs. Rajeev is also an acclaimed keynote and TEDx speaker, and the author of four books, including the Wall Street Journal bestseller Open Source Leadership.

His latest book, Sustainable Sustainability, challenges the effectiveness of current frameworks like ESG and highlights critical missing elements. Rajeev's extensive global experience includes advising top-tier clients like Deutsche Bank, HSBC, and the World Bank. He has been recognized as one of the Top 100 Global Thought Leaders for Trustworthy Business and continues to influence the fields of sustainability and leadership development.

Rajeev Peshawaria shared his insights with the Reblue team on how steward leadership and a purpose-driven approach can foster the development of sustainable organizations with lasting legacies. His long-term perspective, as opposed to a short-term focus, elucidates how successful companies like the Tata Group achieve profitability while embedding sustainability into their core business strategies.

Team Reblue: What inspired you to write "Sustainable Sustainability" and delve into the concept of steward leadership?

Rajeev Peshawaria: So you know, the short answer is that I was disturbed by the fact that we are trying to address a leadership issue or rather solve a leadership issue with money, incentives and regulation. So that's the short answer.
The long answer is that, you know, money incentives and regulation are definitely not producing the kind of urgent innovation we need to solve for existential challenges that humanity is facing right now.
There are $43 trillion in ESG assets and you ask yourself how much of those 43 trillion is actually going towards environmental or social action?
The answer is - very little. And there are incentives galore.
I mean, now the latest fad is to link CEO compensation with ESG markers and the the more you come you achieve ESG markers, are bigger your bonus and that's creating rampant greenwashing. And more than 100 countries have passed ESG related legislation and people are check boxing or finding loopholes.
So the only way to solve for income inequality, for climate change, for misuse of technology is to use a leadership approach that is fit for the 21st century.
So that was my motivation.

Team Reblue: Can you elaborate on the concept of ESL and its significance in today's business environment? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: So, what the world is doing is looking at what can we do.
And so governments are saying let's pass new laws.
The business world is saying let's create new incentives for good behavior and the finance industry is saying let's create money and capital available, right?
We instead looked at, and yet we see all kinds of bad behavior.

But we looked at 100 companies who are actually making a difference on environmental and social issues.
We studied them in detail and we tried to understand why are they doing it and how are they doing. And we found they're not doing it because of cheaper capital.
They're not doing it because of incentives.
They're not doing it because of regulation.
They're doing it because they want to do it.
They're doing it with a very different kind of leadership intent based on the idea, for example, of interdependence.
Interdependence is a belief that the more I do for society, the more my business or my profession is going to be successful.
The more I give, the more I get.
So these business leaders wanted to make money, but they wanted to make money by providing tangible value, or rather just at honest and just pricing to society and make money that way rather than saying how much maximum money can we make, they ask, what are the biggest pain points of society?
How can we solve those profitably?
Meaning give society what it needs at a reasonable price and still make a lot of profit for ourselves.
So we studied these hundred companies and came across the fact that they had these four ideas in common interdependence, long term view, which is self explanatory.
Taking ownership for today's existential challenges and saying as a business executive, I'm going to do my bit, I take ownership for today's existential challenges and creative resilience, meaning I will not give up until I find innovative solutions, innovative, profitable solutions.
And they pursued this purpose, which said that “I don't want to just make money for my shareholder or for myself. I want to create a collective better future for all sections of society”
So because we found these things in common between these hundred companies, we said that it's all about leadership.
It's not about capital, incentives, regulation.
Hence, we are arguing that ESG must upgrade to ESL, where L stands for leadership, specifically steward leadership.

Team Reblue: The book’s name “Sustainable Sustainability” itself speaks volume about it. We would love to know what made you come up with this name as well as your inspiration to write the book. 

Rajeev Peshawaria: So I was talking to a friend of mine who is who in the sustainability space over a drink and we were chatting about the book that I was writing.
So we didn't have a title at that time.
So I told him what we were trying to do.
He made a comment. He said Rajeev it sounds to me that you are trying to make sustainability itself sustainable because the current efforts are not working.
So I said say that again, and he repeated himself.
I said say that again, and he repeated himself again.
So the working title became making sustainability sustainable and that's what we went into the publishers with.

But then my editor actually came up with saying actually sustainable sustainability might be even more specific. And instantly, I said, yeah, that's even better than making sustainability sustainable.
So that's the genesis.

Team Reblue: Innovation often requires significant upfront investment.  For example, Silicon Valley’s innovation culture has a lot to thank the US Federal Government for the Department of Defense. Government contracts and grants, particularly from the Department of Defense during the Cold War, provided crucial funding for research and development. DARPA funded projects with a long-term vision but were highly risky financially, even if the commercial applications weren't immediately apparent. Do you believe true innovations related to Sustainability will require government funding with visionary high-risk, high reward thinking on part of elected leaders? Are there examples of this across the world currently? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: About two-thirds of the world's top 100 economies consist of corporations rather than governments. While governments need to allocate funds for sustainability projects, the active involvement of businesses is crucial to achieving scalable positive outcomes. Encouragingly, there are successful instances of collaboration between governments and the private sector in environmental conservation efforts. Sweden serves as a notable example of this cooperative approach.


'Rather than solely advocating for consuming less, it's essential to promote sustainable consumption practices that prioritize efficiency, resource conservation, and equitable distribution of resources.'


Team Reblue: As an addendum to the earlier question, do you see venture capital (which itself had stepped in to take the DoD’s role in the case of Silicon Valley) or private funds be willing to fund true innovations? With the caveat that they themselves might not be able to reap the full benefits of the things they fund? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: In Singapore, a growing number of family offices are increasingly setting up shop, contributing to the landscape of philanthropic capital. Philanthropic capital is playing a role in funding innovative solutions aimed at addressing the world’s challenges on climate and poverty. 

Team Reblue: Should consuming less be a goal? The answer to a Western audience might seem clear – we should consume less. But developing economies, which have seen massive growth based upon rising consumption, how should these countries address this? Is there an alternative path that can bring millions to a certain level of prosperity without following the consumption model? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: Numerous developing economies have seen significant growth driven by rising consumption levels. This growth has been instrumental in elevating millions from poverty and granting access to essential goods and services. Therefore, urging for reduced consumption without accounting for these nations’ distinct contexts may hinder their development strides and prolong inequality.

Rather than solely advocating for consuming less, it's essential to promote sustainable consumption practices that prioritize efficiency, resource conservation, and equitable distribution of resources. Developing economies can pursue alternative paths to prosperity that focus on sustainable development, innovation, and inclusive economic growth.

Team Reblue: You talk about values-based leadership as part of ESL (L standing for leadership as a subset of ‘Steward Leadership’). How does this work in real-life in hyper-competitive markets? Apart from the leaders themselves (C-Suite etc), how should stakeholders (shareholders) think about this? Are there any incentives that work to make this happen?  

Rajeev Peshawaria: To clarify, the book says governance (G) is a subset of Steward Leadership. Steward Leadership is characterised by four core values: interdependence, a long-term view, an ownership mentality and creative resilience (read more here: https://www.stewardshipasia.com.sg/who-we-are/steward-leadership-compass). We believe that these intrinsic drivers are crucial for the effectiveness of extrinsic mechanisms such as rules, reporting frameworks and measurement tools. 

Team Reblue: As mentioned in the survey that you conducted, only 13 per cent respondents believe that the corporate world is extremely sincere about going beyond rules and regulations to proactively create solutions. What according to you can change this number to a higher percentage? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: Awareness and education are vital to drive change. At SAC, we offer executive education programs designed to help organisations understand the importance of steward leadership. Additionally, we have established a crowd-sourced content and community hub, www.stewardshipcommons.com, to spread awareness and knowledge and to drive behaviour change. These initiatives reflect SAC’s commitment and initiatives, yet it’s imperative for every individual to take ownership and do their part to make a significant impact.

Team Reblue: The four steward values are Interdependence, Long-term view, Ownership mentality and Creative resilience. Can you elaborate more on how one can implement these values in their personal lives as well as in their organisations?

Rajeev Peshawaria: Interdependence is to consider the broader impact of your actions and ensure that everyone wins not just you. Prioritise long-term goals over instant gratification and take ownership to make stewardship happen on an individual basis, such as avoiding the use of plastics or practising inclusivity in meetings. Also, cultivate resilience in the face of challenges because stewardship isn’t easy. Our Steward Leadership Compass, which is a step-by-step practical framework, is applicable for both individuals and organizations.


'We are not against regulations; they’re crucial for maintaining law and order and minimising harm. However, their primary focus is often on minimising harm rather than maximising good. Governments must balance regulations with a values-based approach.'


Team Reblue: A lot of companies get really good, value-invested leaders with good intentions on board to further their sustainability goals. But when things change (financially), those same leaders have to back down. Or leadership changes and rolls back what was in place. 

How do organisations address this? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: Market volatility can significantly affect an organisation’s strategy, sometimes necessitating a temporary rollback to ensure its survival and uphold job security for many. It’s crucial for new leaders to grasp that, for the organisation’s long-term success, stewardship’s purpose need does not conflict with profit. If anything, evidence suggests the opposite. In today’s era of transparency, where ordinary individuals like you and me wield extraordinary access to information, customers and consumers expect companies to demonstrate stewardship behaviours. Failure to do so may result in consumers shunning products, particularly if alternatives from compliant companies are readily available.

Team Reblue: One of our moonshot goals as a company is to help companies collaborate with each other on sustainability goals. We are some ways away from that, but we want to create a model that helps companies sustainably (excuse the pun), work together. That’s why your view on Interdependence and Long-term view was super intriguing for us. You say that successful companies embed environmental and social sustainability in their strategy, execution, and culture. They show values of interdependence, ownership mentality, long-term orientation, and creative resilience. The other concept that really struck a note was business ecosystems. 

Would this type of cooperation be possible between companies too? How would it look like in practice, if it were possible? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: The book laid out six applicable guidelines:   

  1. Credible ambition

  2. Complementary foundation partners

  3. Clear roadmap

  4. Clear value proposition for all partners

  5. Minimise transaction costs and barriers

  6. Supporting sub-ecosystem

(You may read more in the book.)

Facilitating collaboration among companies on sustainability goals is feasible, ensuring cooperation such as sharing best practices, resources, and expertise, addressing common challenges such as reducing carbon emissions or promoting sustainable supply chains. Companies can work together on initiatives within or across industries, innovating new sustainable solutions. 

Team Reblue: You are clear that we all should be thinking beyond regulations when it comes to sustainability. Having said that, how do you reimagine regulations? Which countries do regulations well in terms of sustainability and why does it work? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: We are not against regulations; they’re crucial for maintaining law and order and minimising harm. However, their primary focus is often on minimising harm rather than maximising good. Governments must balance regulations with a values-based approach. 

Team Reblue: You must meet a lot of leaders as part of your work. In your opinion, who are the leaders who currently embody the values that ESL stands for? How does this person/s think like at the human motivation level? How do they act and communicate their vision on a tactical basis? How do they gather allies? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: In the book, we have included case studies featuring companies such as Faber Castell, The Tata Group, Mars Incorporated, and many more. These case studies offer valuable reference points for readers on how leaders communicate their vision.

Team Reblue: To add to the above questions, have you met lower-level leadership who are doing great work at a lower level in the corporate hierarchy? This is very interesting for us as we see highly motivated teams within larger sustainability teams, kind of skunk work teams, who work with little resources but still want to and do good work. Do you have any words of advice for such teams and their leaders? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: They should ensure their efforts are recognised. Our SL25 initiative is aimed at acknowledging and amplifying the quiet champions who are making a difference in this world.

Team Reblue: Is there a flaw within human nature itself that needs to be addressed? I find this Sean Parker quote very interesting (former President of Facebook) which he says in the movie the Social Dilemma about how social networks grew, “You're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. I think the inventors, creators… all these people understood this consciously, and we did it anyway.” To my question, how can we override our human tendencies of greed and everything that comes along with it? Are there societies in the world who have managed to do this at a real level (without exporting the problems out of their geographies)? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: To address inherent flaws like greed, education and societal structures are paramount. Societies, like those in Scandinavia, prioritise equity and justice, showcasing effective strategies. However, systemic change demands a values-based revolution to foster collaboration, stewardship, accountability and transparency. Ultimately, overcoming human tendencies toward greed requires self-awareness and creative resilience and adherence to the ethos of doing well by doing good regardless of bad and good times.

Team Reblue: How do we stop the next generation from making the same mistakes that we have done over the last 200 years? Today’s children and young people face unfiltered calls to consume and the linking of self-worth with consumption. For example, many young people in countries with low per capita incomes, with a monthly salary under USD 1000, will buy a thousand-dollar phone on instalments. Children under 10 are being pitched to constantly to get more things.  How do we get a different model of thinking in front of them at scale? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: To steer future generations towards the right path, comprehensive education reforms are needed to teach critical thinking, financial literacy, and environmental awareness with stewardship values forming the foundation of decision-making. Media literacy programs can help children critically evaluate advertising. By promoting values like well-being and sustainability, we can instil a mindset that prioritise responsible consumption at scale.

Team Reblue: We are based out of Pune which is an industrial hub near Mumbai. Back in the 60s and 70s, many of companies set up large factories spread over hundreds of acres. These were essentially mini towns where employees got housing, hospitals, entertainment, everything within their compounds. Some of these still exist today here in Pune. These factory towns were common across India (Jamshedpur of Tata Steel being another example). America also has had this as a big part of its history. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but isn’t that a very sustainable community-based model of operating? We don’t see this as much anymore, do we? Is that a model worth exploring? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: Certainly, Pune, as an industrial hub near Mumbai, has a history of large factories dating back to the 60s and 70s. These factories were self-contained communities offering housing, healthcare, and more within their compounds. While less common today, this community-based approach offers a sustainable model worth revisiting. Integrating work, living, and leisure spaces can reduce commuting and promote shared resources, fostering more sustainable and cohesive communities for the future.

Team Reblue: Are steward leaders born or made? How can organisations spot these leaders within their own organisations? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: While some individuals may naturally possess certain qualities associated with stewardship, I strongly believe that these traits can also be developed and nurtured through education, and mentorship. As mentioned, we provide executive education and customised programmes to enable companies to integrate the stewardship mindset and enable sustainability.

Organisations can identify potential steward leaders within their ranks by looking for certain key attributes and behaviours based on our Steward Leadership Compass. We also believe in experiential learning. Later this year, we are bringing some senior executives to the Doi Tung Development Project in the Chiang Rai Province of Thailand. Over three decades ago, Doi Tung in Mae Chan District, Chiang Rai Province, was characterised by barren hillsides and dire living conditions for its villagers, who were trapped in a cycle of poverty and illicit livelihoods such as drug cultivation and sex trafficking. The arrival of Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra, the Princess Mother in 1987, marked a pivotal moment. Recognising poverty and a lack of opportunity as the root cause of issues, she initiated the Doi Tung Development Project (DTDP) intending to break the vicious cycle of "sickness, poverty, and ignorance." 

Team Reblue: I loved the stories about Unilever’s former CEO Paul Polman and Morgan Stanley’s former CEO John Mack. Things really did get bad before they got better but they stuck to it. That makes me curious, how do we, as individuals, become steward leaders? The Steward Leadership Compass is a great guide of course but I am curious as to what your advice be to younger people under 30 who are working corporate jobs with all that it could entail. 

Rajeev Peshawaria: It's a great question. Unilever is definitely facing pressure now from activist investors that you're going too far.

This whole purpose journey right now, why does Dove soap need to have its own purpose?
And why does you know mayonnaise need to have its own purpose statement?
Each brand, each product.
So I think it's a question of balance.
I think it's a question of strategy.
How far you take it, you can easily overdo anything, and that's what the problem with Unilever currently seems to be, that they are just getting too carried away and investors are saying, yeah, we are also sustainable.
But come on, you know, be reasonable here.
You guys are going crazy about it.
So the other point I will make is at the end of the day, steward leaders are not ok.
Investors will be investors.
They want a return on their money and they want the maximum return on their money as a steward leader, you are not running a charity.
You are still running a business, so to appeal to your investor, hey, take less growth or take less.
Profitability is not gonna work.
You're gonna get fired, right?

So what is the solution?
Well, show them a strategy, a growth strategy based on sustainability that investors can believe in.
That's what Paul Polman did.
He showed them, hey, there will be some dips in the first two years, but in the long run, I'm gonna give you much more returns than our current strategy or any other competitive strategy is gonna do.
And it's gonna solidify.
The company investors bought it in the case of his counterpart at Denon investors didn't buy it, and the board fired it right now.

Team Reblue: What is your advice to founders? If I am starting out a company today, how should I design my company? It seems to be it could be harder for companies to change course later than if the foundation itself was correct? What would be your advice? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: Have to create the culture in your company and by the way it's easier to do it from day one than to do it after 20 years before. Well, I've written a lot of stuff on culture, on organizational culture. You can look up my articles and you'll find a lot of stuff there, but the the the only thing that works with culture in an organization is one thing.

Walk the talk. Walk the talk. Walk the talk.

So if when people are trying to make a difficult decisions in your company, your employees and they ask, what would the founder do in this situation?

That should be so clear to them. They don't need to talk to you.

That is the kind of walk the talk you need to do that they don't even need to ask you. If they ask themselves, hey, they're dealing with this problem with this dilemma, what would he have done?

You have to be so good with walking the talk.

You have to be so good with your communication of what to talk, not just walk the talk, but talk the talk as well, in the sense that label and link when you notice good behavior in somebody, you label it.

Ohh wow, you are doing the right thing by the environment and tell that story to the rest of the company to labeling and linking in your communication is a great strategy but before that you have to be totally predictable in your own behavior because people will look towards the founder or the CEO to say to look for clues to behave and those who buy into your purpose and values will stay in the company and behave in that way.

Those who don't agree with you will leave.

And that's OK. 


'The future of sustainability will be characterised by collective action and shared responsibility, as stakeholders work together to create a more equitable, resilient, and sustainable world for future generations.'


Team Reblue: We love the idea of business ecosystems. It stems, as you mention, from the thought that ‘Socioeconomic challenges may require new types of organisations. You paraphrase that a business ecosystem is ‘a network of organizations and individuals that co-evolve their capabilities and roles and align their investments so as to create additional value and/or improve efficiency’. For a low-trust societies, there are challenges with creating such ecosystems. How would you go about it? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: In low-trust societies, creating business ecosystems necessitates tailored strategies. This involves establishing transparency and accountability through clear rules and oversight, fostering relationships based on mutual respect and open communication, facilitating knowledge-sharing and collaboration among participants, empowering local communities in decision-making processes, and demonstrating tangible benefits to build trust and credibility. 

Team Reblue: Speaking about DEI, your book references this quote ‘women are often over-mentored and under- sponsored.’ Could you elaborate? How can this be improved. 

Rajeev Peshawaria:There are many ways to close the gap such as promoting awareness and education, addressing bias and stereotypes, and improving the organisation’s DEI culture. These measures also require the integration of stewardship values to be effective. Among our SL25 honourees, some are doing just that. Please see here

Team Reblue: What advice would you give to business leaders who are looking to enhance their organization's sustainability efforts but may be facing challenges or resistance internally? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: For business leaders encountering challenges or resistance internally while striving to enhance sustainability efforts, I recommend several approaches:

  • Clearly articulate the business case for sustainability, highlighting the potential benefits in terms of cost savings, risk mitigation, and reputation enhancement.

  • Engage with stakeholders across the organisation to understand concerns and perspectives and involve employees in the decision-making process to foster buy-in and ownership.

  • Provide education and training on sustainability concepts and practices to empower employees with the knowledge and skills needed to contribute to sustainability initiatives.

  • Lead by example and demonstrate commitment to sustainability through visible actions and initiatives, inspiring others to follow suit.

Team Reblue: How can businesses ensure that their DEI initiatives are authentic and not just superficial gestures, especially in the context of sustainability reporting and corporate social responsibility? 

Rajeev Peshawaria: Again, this is about instilling stewardship values.

Team Reblue: Lastly, how do you see sustainability as a wider endeavour play out in the world over the next few decades? Paint us a picture of what you think the future holds. 

Rajeev Peshawaria: Looking ahead, sustainability will increasingly become a central focus for businesses, governments, and society over the next few decades. As awareness of environmental and social issues continues to grow, there will be greater pressure for organizations to adopt sustainable practices and embrace responsible business conduct. This shift will drive innovation and collaboration across sectors, leading to the development of innovative technologies, business models, and policy frameworks that prioritize sustainability and address pressing global challenges such as climate change, resource scarcity, and social inequality.
To me, the future of sustainability will be characterised by collective action and shared responsibility, as stakeholders work together to create a more equitable, resilient, and sustainable world for future generations.


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Reblue Ventures

We aim to make sustainability simply smart business. Through research and partnerships, we develop pragmatic solutions that reveal the immense uncaptured value in sustainable operations.

© 2024 ✣ All rights reserved.

Reblue Ventures

Reblue Ventures

We aim to make sustainability simply smart business. Through research and partnerships, we develop pragmatic solutions that reveal the immense uncaptured value in sustainable operations.

© 2024 ✣ All rights reserved.

Reblue Ventures

Reblue Ventures

We aim to make sustainability simply smart business. Through research and partnerships, we develop pragmatic solutions that reveal the immense uncaptured value in sustainable operations.

© 2024 ✣ All rights reserved.

Reblue Ventures

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