Rise like Robin Hood

Is leadership nature or nurture? My personal opinion is that we are either born to be leaders, or we are not. But as became evident in a recent poll amongst supply chain directors in our magazine, Supply Chain Magazine, the vote on this is still out.

Quite separate from this particular discussion, leadership is something that is needed now more than ever. These days, it is not just Dutch political leaders who need to prove their leadership qualities (currently put to the test during complex coalition talks in the run up to much needed government cut backs that they hope to achieve by combining ministries and streamlining government.) It is the directors and managers who need to exhibit leadership when it comes to ways of getting their businesses through the economic crisis, and all that whilst doing it in a sustainable manner. During the Sustainable Supply Chains Congress in Noordwijk, The Netherlands on 2nd June this year, a number of top executives from Philips, AkzoNobel and Menzis were very convincing about their visions for the significant opportunities that surround sustainability.

These top execs from multinationals are clearly leaders in sustainability (probably helped there by a good deal advice from staff and advisors), yet I still see many companies doing very little with sustainability, and companies where it’s doesn’t even appear on the boardroom agenda. “Our first duty is to survive,” is the response I get. In fact, I got fewer responses from supply chain directors to my provoking statements about sustainability than I did to other topics, like leadership for example.

So where should the stimulus come from when it comes to sustainability? When I watched the film Robin Hood with Russell Crowe last month in the cinema, the penny finally dropped. Russell Crowe plays an archer who is returning from the crusades in the Middle-East through France. He bumps into a fatally wounded English knight who is on his way back to Britain to return the king’s crown after he had been killed in battle. Crowe’s character, who later becomes Robin Hood, decides to take on the knight’s identity in order to finish this important mission. It is Robin Hood of course who rises to the occasion as the British would say.

In my eyes, the whole film is about leadership, which was confirmed when I read an anecdote about how the film came about. In an extensive interview with the English film magazine Empire, the director, Ridley Scott, well-known for his collaboration with Crowe in the classic film Gladiator, explains how they filmed the invasion scenes during the filming of Robin Hood. According to Scott, the English coast was spectacular, but very difficult to film. The waves kept on moving the landing craft meaning that every time they wanted to redo the shot, the landing craft had to be taken back out to sea. Ridley Scott, in his seventies and a clear leader, was the first to jump in the water, in up to his hips, only to have to shout back to the rest of the crew: “What are you all waiting for?”

So leadership boils down to taking initiative at the right time. And that is how the former KLM director Frank Schaper describes leadership, based on his experience of a plane crash, in his new book “How to become a born leader”. Then, during the Sustainability Gala on 2nd June, the UN Secretary Kofi Annan voiced a similar opinion: “Sustainable innovation is going to be as big as the industrial revolution. And it’s up to individuals to make the difference. We are all in the same boat. If there’s a hole in it, it won’t matter which side you are on. The revolution will start with one person. Someone has to take the initiative and fill the hole….”

Martijn Lofvers, Publishing Director & Chief Editor, Supply Chain Magazine