There is so much we do – why isn’t there a higher impact?

Welcome to The Transatlantic Debate Blog. We are starting with Business School Lausanne Dean Katrin Muff on how coherence is vital to helping us build a sustainable future:

Launching the transatlantic debate, I would like to address COHERENCE – and the lack thereof – and its importance in transforming small actions at various levels into the massive transformation required to prepare for a world and society in which 9 billion people will live well (WBCSD’s Vision 2050) together.

If I look at any of the three levels of analysis (individual, institutional, societal, as championed by the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative GRLI), it becomes blatantly obvious to what degree there is a lack of coherence between what we know, and what we do.

On an individual level, I recognize that given everything I know about the state of the world, the interconnectedness of societal, environmental and economic concern, my personal actions still put me by and large to shame. My personal footprint is still 2.4 planets, despite the fact that I have sold (well, ok, crashed) my car, I eat meat only once a week, and consume (by and large) responsibly. It’s really air travel that still kills me – I know it! And yet, I have just agreed (ok, I thought long and hard about it, but so what?) to two trips to Asia this Spring to talk about responsible management – an obvious display of personal dissonance.

On an institutional level, things are actually most fluffy. There are fewer and fewer companies that don’t at least claim to be sustainable or care about the world and its issues. And there is a growing number of companies that actually seriously work on reducing their negative impact – often, of course, to improve their competitiveness.

How do we differentiate between greenwash and the real stuff or between “high sustainability and low sustainability” companies, when we cannot even agree on what “business sustainability” actually means?

With our yet unpublished article, Thomas Dyllick and I have attempted to clarify the meaning of sustainable business by introducing a typology, from business-as-usual to true business sustainability. We defined three different degrees for a business to be sustainable (see table below). The related shifts deal with a change in attitude from sole economic concern to three-dimensional business concern (society, environment, economy), advancing from a refined shareholder-value model to the triple bottom line (people, planet, profit), and finally, shifting from an inside-out organizational perspective to an outside-in point of view.


But there is a long way from knowing how to differentiate a sustainable company to actually becoming one, as Bob Eccles and George Serafeim discuss in their Summer 2012 MIT Sloan article.

On a societal level, we have a number of issues. While in Europe we have at least come to recognize that climate change does exist, it is still up for debate in the US, so we cannot actually assume that “we know”. Or could it be that if we accepted that we do know what kind of trouble the world is in (on all three sustainability dimensions: societal, environmental and economic), that the incoherence between what we know and how we act would be unbearable? This terrible 3-minute trailer by Chris Jordan addresses in a stunning manner the central question we face as societies, institutions and individuals: “Do we have the courage to face the realities of our time; to allow ourselves feel deeply enough so that it transforms us and our future?”

I believe that the biggest lever of change lies in the dramatic increase of coherence between what we know and do at the individual, the institutional and the societal level. We have spent the last two centuries exploring and measuring the world (the right side of this infinity symbol), and we have forgotten the journey to our inner self and our internal worlds (the left side of this symbol). An increase of coherence can be achieved be reconnecting these two spheres – by bringing our “whole selves to work”, by engaging in self-reflection, personal development and self-management – as a part of any business curriculum that seeks to develop leaders who can embrace the highly complex and dynamic issues of this world – both now and in the coming decades.


I am highly interested in pursuing a discussion about how we can get this infinity circle flowing again, and working in a business school that is dedicated to sustainability, responsibility and entrepreneurship, I sense that I have a great opportunity to explore how this back-and-forth between inner and outer worlds can be celebrated in our various business courses.

Dr. Katrin MuffDr. Katrin Muff is Dean at Business School Lausanne (BSL), Director of the innovative Sustainable Business DBA program and co-directs the world-class Executive course in Sustainable Business jointly with her colleague Thomas Dyllick of the University of St. Gallen. She writes a weekly blog and is actively engaged in transforming business education to serve the world (project 50+20).


  1. Katrin
    It’s refreshing to read someone at such leadership level being so frank about the personal dissonance (a neat way to put it) that characterises almost all of us who take an interest in what sustainability actually means. In a very pressed economy many people working at middle levels in organisations feel backed into a corner whereby professional and domestic “survival” (i.e. the short term view) are a more pressing day-to-day preoccupation than “sustainability”. That makes squaring the circle around the conflict between our conscience and “good” aspirations and the day-to-day pressure of delivering within the frameworks we operate in a huge challenge.
    I’m looking forward to seeing the debate unfold (& illuminate).


  2. I am totally agree, the Leadership that we need is based on high norms of life in the inner world towards the society level, of course the outer world. But the key point is…now it is not negotiable to consider the outer level …….making responsible and sustainable decisions is a competitive necessity in the business world now.


  3. A really interesting start to a much needed debate. Here in the UK Business in the Community produced an interesting report last summer on what more needs to be done to go beyond the tick-box mentality of some CSR. Increasingly they are asking business leaders to consider their legacy – how do they want to be remembered? As a powerful force for social improvement or as a successful deliver of short term shareholder gain. You can find the report here


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