The world is headed towards “a perfect storm” and meeting that challenge requires fundamental changes to the culture of business. That’s the view of Tex Gunning, a member of the board of management at Dutch paint and chemical giant Akzo Nobel and a leading advocate for the role of business in tackling global social and environmental challenges.

Business as usual, he said, is not an option.

In his keynote address at a sustainability conference hosted by NUS, Gunning was blunt in laying out the extent of the current crisis, with the world’s population surging and pressure growing on resources.

“We have a massive problem in terms of population, climate and economic problems, urbanisation,” he said. “We already have too many people to feed, too many people that need water, too many people that need land to live. This is entirely unsustainable and we all know this.”

Redefining business

The conference, entitled Sustainable Practices for Our Future: Not Business as Usual, brought together leaders from the worlds of commerce, academia and the NGO sector to discuss how to tackle pressing social, ecological and economic challenges. In an interview with NUS Business School, Gunning said that the changes required to meet those challenges must begin with changes in culture.

We have entirely lost our understanding of what the role of business is

Tex Gunning

“We must change our paradigms and change the things that guide us every single day in our decisions,” he said. “The challenge is not technological, the challenge is not even economical. The challenge is entirely cultural.”

And one important cultural change, he says, has to do with how we understand the role of capitalism. Business, he argues, must be redefined, to integrate social and ecological thinking with economic thinking, and to stop believing that business is meant to serve shareholders or make profits.

“We have entirely lost our understanding of what the role of business is. We have raised an entire generation to believe that it is about pleasing shareholders,” Gunning told NUS Business School.

“The role of business has always been to help industrialise and help take care of this world. To feed the world. To make sure that health issues are going to be resolved.”

Gunning also argued that society must fundamentally change its understanding of wealth. Wealth cannot be defined entirely in economic terms, but instead we must consider the value of social wealth and environmental wealth.

Servant leaders

According to Gunning, change must begin with changes in how we view and understand leadership. “There is no cultural change without leadership change. We need leaders that are servants,” he said.

ThinkAloud4Gunning says that it is difficult to find leaders who choose to serve others rather than themselves, because from an early age, society rewards leaders for individual performance. By the time they are in positions of power, leaders have been conditioned to hold themselves in high regard and to think about their own needs first.

But servant leaders do exist. To Gunning, great leaders are, first and foremost, great human beings. “When you ask people to describe a great leader, they never describe processes, they never talk about structures, they never talk about remuneration. When they describe great leaders, they all describe great human beings,” he said.

Asked how students can contribute to sustainability when they enter the work force and are still at entry level positions, Gunning urged young people to make deliberate choices about the kind of leaders that they want to work for.

“Find leaders who share your values,” he said. “Support the leaders that have the right values. It is horrible to work for a boss who is self-centered and has the wrong paradigms of how to run their institution.

“So, walk – it is your life. Walk into organisations that share the values that you have as a young person and then you will see a shift in culture. Don’t conform.”