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green@work : Magazine :Back Issues : Jan/Feb 2002 : Frontlines

Larger Than Life

The full scope of sustainability hinges on leadership in the here and now.

by Ross Leonard

In the 1960s Charles and Ray Eames created a film titled “Powers of Ten.” The film begins by focusing the viewer on a microscopic detail of the fingertip of a young man. Dramatically the film pulls away, by the power of 10, exposing the same scene from a distance. This time we see that the young man is having a picnic with friends. It then pulls away by the power of 100, then the power of 1,000, then the power of 10,000 until we see the same view from space. The Eameses are successful in illustrating how all things, all people and all actions are parts of a larger system—the whole system.

While the film was originally commissioned by IBM to demonstrate the large computing power of mainframe computers, the principle of how people and their actions interconnect to the whole system is equally relevant today, especially in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. For most of us, the view of the world has been radically altered. As our nation watched in horror while the tragedy unfolded, a larger perspective emerged. And now, the view from 100,000 feet is more focused, more concentrated on core values and more aware of the powerful effect our individual actions have on the larger system of things.

For many of us who work within the design-related communities, this new view of the world represents a fundamental shift from what were sometimes abstract notions of social responsibility to what is today a very real and focused challenge. The overall issue of design responsibility seems also to have shifted from the abstract—something other people should do—to the concrete—something everyone can and should do now. This is particularly true with regard to sustainable design practices. Protecting the earth is, after all, a large job and tends to fall into the category of things “other people” should do.

For example, in Design Ecology, a white paper published two years ago by the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) and C&A Floorcoverings, based on an independent survey about opportunities and barriers to sustainable design, leading designers and Fortune 1000 managers talked about leadership in sustainable design. While all respondents agreed that sustainable approaches to design were a high priority, each community of respondents believed it was the other community’s responsibility to take the first step.

What the study pointed out is that the issue of responsibility—the matter of sustainability—is simply an issue of leadership. And although approaches to achieve sustainability are widely diverse, there is a common thread among those who have assumed a leadership role. That thread is a shared vision that joins all sustainable activities together. A sustainable organization and the sustainable design process bring about a necessary interconnectedness of people with their physical, economic and environmental needs. It is this interconnectedness that enables us to understand the power and influence of our actions and to focus on their implications within a broader perspective of our world.


Those who have taken a leadership role show us by their actions that sustainability is a mission of change. Rather than a stand-alone event, sustainability is a life-style—a way to view the world and interact with it. From my vantage point of working with both the design and corporate communities, I have seen how those who choose to lead on this issue teach us that it is as much about the process as it is the finished product. From these leaders we learn from their struggles, not just their successes.

Understanding the process of change is an essential ingredient to creating a lasting effort, as Bill Ford Jr., chairman and CEO, Ford Motor Co., observed in his interview last year with green@work. Ford recalled how he sought out others who were actively involved in sustainability issues, asking them why they made certain decisions. Would they do it again? What were the obstacles and opportunities? He was not interested in finished answers, but in understanding how the process works so that he could develop the appropriate tools of sustainability to fit his own corporate culture.

By seeking out examples of environmental leadership we can gain insight into how it can be managed and made inspiring. Leaders do so much to support the process of change by motivating, inspiring and aligning people to the vision. They also support the mission by providing examples of their work and in their willingness to share their knowledge and commitment.

Today the notion of responsibility has taken on greater significance. And as the view of the world comes into clearer focus we can see that it is an opportunity and a privilege to become leaders in the effort to achieve sustainable practices and commit to integrate our business and personal values without harming the objective of either. From 100,000 feet in space we can focus on the whole system. We can’t pass our problems to another generation to live with and to fix. Environmental leaders show us ways to act responsibly, inspire us to commit and help us to do things right.

Ross Leonard is director of architecture and design marketing for C&A Floorcoverings, one of the founders of IIDA and C&A Sustainable Leadership Awards.

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