Bold thinking, brave action

By Janek Seevaratnam, Charities Aid Foundation

A new report from leading voices in sustainability in the UK has found that bravery and a willingness to reject the status quo are vital if businesses are to respond in a meaningful way to the combined pressures of the global pandemic and the climate emergency.

In July 2020, Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) and Forster Communications launched a collaborative report, “Bold thinking, brave action”, in which we interviewed 11 leading sustainable business figures from a host of organisations – from B Corps and corporate foundations through to major household brands and multinational companies.

This blog aims to provide a flavour of the report, highlighting some key quotes from our contributors; and to stress how crucial bravery is in tackling the world’s most pressing societal and environmental issues.

Why bravery?

“Part of corporate bravery is a willingness to confront orthodoxy. From the start of capitalism people have always rejected the status quo.”


Early last year, the dial seemed to be shifting around how sustainability was being talked about. Efforts that took place in civil society, such as those of Extinction Rebellion and #Fridaysforfuture, began to shape conversations in the boardroom. I heard the CEO of Danone say in a keynote speech that brands must “be bold or die”.

The partnership between CAF and Forster began with a roundtable event for sustainability leaders from a range of industries to inspire action and greater collaboration within and beyond their organisations. During this discussion the notion of bravery was centrefold, which inspired us to explore what corporate bravery is and why it’s so crucial today.


What makes someone brave?

“None of this has been easily won, and there have certainly been occasions when I could have been braver and shouted louder for more and more radical change.”


Thanks to the openness of our contributors, our research interviews unlocked a wealth of insights and rare pieces of advice. The breadth of expertise and diversity of experience showed us that bravery has many faces, but also enabled us to build a holistic picture of what it means.

We learned that all brave leaders share a set of common attributes: conviction, humility, imagination, integrity and passion. These attributes are then lived out through a group of five key behaviours, all of which have the end goal of challenging the status quo.

For me, the most engaging part of the report is the set of five composite characters we devised to help people reflect on what type of brave they need to be. The depth of these five characters is revealed in the full report, but in summary:

  • The Firebrand – led by a strong sense of what is right and wrong and takes great effort to stick to their moral compass, thinking big and taking on a personal risk
  • The Campaigner – acts like an organisation’s conscience and is driven by a strong sense of values, also taking a personal risk, building movements and constantly pushing for change
  • The Collectivist – believes in the power of people and sets out to achieve outcomes that benefit everyone through collaboration, sharing and movement building
  • The Strategist – processes a mass of information before acting and, through analysis and reflection, identifies and prioritises the most important changes and effective ways to bring them about
  • The Wayfinder – disciplined and diligent, often working quietly behind the scenes so the organisation can move at speed when the time is right


Where can I make the biggest impact?

“We have to look at business as a system of potential.”


We also discovered that there are a number of organisational conditions that need to be in place to encourage brave thinking and behaviour, which we grouped into three areas and address some of the following questions:

  • Purpose – What role do core values play in encouraging bold thinking? How can bravery positively influence an organisation’s openness to change?
  • People – Can risk taking and bravery thrive in an organisation without psychological safety? How can leaders foster an enabling culture?
  • Practice – What does a brave approach to governance look like? Can sustainability professionals secure permission to invest without bravery?

As a whole, the report wants people to be able to reflect on the ingredients that empower sustainability leaders to affect real organisational change. It ends with an encouragement to think about where we can personally have the biggest impact.


Why is this so important?

“Granted that tangible change can take a long time, but for example, the climate crisis is now. There is an urgency to act.”

It takes all of our five characters to bring about holistic, sustainable change in an organisation. None of us alone has the solutions but we have come to fully realise the severe consequences of not doing enough. At this critical time, bravery is needed more than ever – to speak truth to power, to change the rules of engagement and to give voice to a new generation.


I’ll leave the final words to one of our contributors:


“We are going to be the first generation of leaders who cannot turn around and say we didn’t know – so what are we going to do?”


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