I am not highlighting these CEOs because their efforts were one-of-a-kind. I’m highlighting them because the planet is running out of time and there are huge recovery opportunities for the CEOs of the future. Each of these CEOs realized the marketplace isn’t perfect by any means. Not only in the sense of economic perfection, but also in the sense that the marketplace is flawed in a variety of
other ways.

Anita Roddick and Ray C. Anderson perceived one of the most significant flaws: the marketplace by itself does nothing to recognize environmental damage caused by corporations. Nor does the marketplace inherently give consumers the information they need to mitigate the damages through their purchases. So Anita and Ray set out to do this themselves—and inform consumers of their impact.

But little by little, we see greater evidence of this becoming something that both consumers and government regulators perceive—and are willing to address. The SEC now wants corporations to disclose their impact on climate change. More and more investment funds are measuring companies’ social responsibility before investing in them, small starts that portend next steps.

All the CEOs profiled revealed senses of humor and irony—to varying degrees, of course.

The easygoing nature of these CEOs might explain why they were remarkably open and willing to share what other corporate CEOs would consider to be competitive secrets. They all were open, especially Sol Price, even with competitors wanting to know his strategies. Sol Price had many big-time visitors to his FedMarts and then Price Clubs, both original business forms that became templates for imitators. He fully answered his competitors’ penetrating inquiries about how he solved problems in running his retail stores. He freely shared what they would have had to pay a ton of money for, were any consulting firm to possess the same know-how.

Such generous spirits flow from their desire to have all customers and all workers treated in other businesses the way they were treated by their enterprises. Sounds corny, but I believe it to be true.

Most came from humble backgrounds. Perhaps they grew up among hardscrabble blue-collar workers, such as Jeno’s father, who labored in the iron mine region of Minnesota, and Bernard’s father, who started as an immigrant peddler. A few had middle-class parents, such as Paul’s librarian father. Only Robert Townsend was born with a silver spoon. Bogle was born to the purple, but the Depression pulled the family harshly down to earth, so that manual labor was the early lot for John and his twin brother.

These CEOs practiced open self-criticism and listened, with discrimination, to others’ critiques.

It was as if they sometimes wanted the goad of the public lash to turn their admitted mistakes into good teachers. They also turned their ears to listen hard to what their employees had to say. They generated a company culture that valued self-criticism from all in their ranks. Some did it very analytically, like Yvon Chouinard who rethought things when alone in the wilderness or in discussions with his team, leading to the refined climbing tools they sold or to making the decision to convert from using industrially farmed cotton to making all their products with organic cotton. It could be in the dogged, arduous step-by-step conversion that Ray Anderson led his company through as it moved toward zero pollution and total recycling. Others made decisive, thorough changes because that just was part of their personality. Jeno Paulucci, in particular, is one who believed in constant change and betterment. These CEOs were not rethinking because they were indecisive or lacking in forcefulness. Strong egos did not keep them from such open self-criticism and willingness to change.

Maybe it was because their powerful self-possession helped them to recover, bounce back from adversities, and move forward better.

They all had strong temperaments. Their tempers varied greatly, ranging from Jeno’s self-described “Italian” eruptions to the cool demeanor of Robert Townsend when he faced down dismissive public criticism. One and all they exhibited emotional intelligence, which they put to work in their personal relations. Their work was far from being purely cognitive. It included an emotional underlay.

Interestingly, it was the most emotional of the group, Jeno Paulucci, who involved himself the most hands-on in political campaigns, including supporting Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in different election periods.

They were in awe of no one, encountering occasional celebrities with equanimity.

They stood apart.

It’s true a few like Yvon, Anita, and Paul formed coalitions to pursue common ecological objectives. Yvon’s organizing of the outdoor recreation businesses, which bought full-page newspaper ads in 2017 to oppose Donald Trump’s exploitation and shrinking of the public lands, was a recent such initiative, and it was coupled with the filing of follow-up lawsuits.

Even so, in general, they did not close ranks with others to champion causes. Moreover, of the twelve, I cannot count any who were close friends or collaborators with one another, although some formed associations, as Ray Anderson did with Paul Hawken. It is a big country and their respective realms rarely intersected. This illustrates a Lone Ranger dimension. Aside from Yvon, Roddick, and Shallal (locally), they were not keenly attracted to forming movements of like-minded businesses.

It is, of course, exhausting enough to run businesses successfully, as they did, so, as they realized, it would be a drain on their time to steer their companies and also work on diffusing their superior practices. The latter might also be a thankless task. They knew better than anyone the deep wells of structural and personal resistance to change, to any serious overhaul, that they would find among business executives. One notable exception is Paul Hawken. He used his businesses chiefly to educate others in adopting the principles articulated in his permanent bestseller, The Ecology of Commerce. This book changed Ray Anderson’s life work for Planet Earth. In most cases, though, the CEOs didn’t proselytize. Some did have a central cause to which they devoted their spare energies; others like Bernard Rapoport, were wildly eclectic. Rapoport put his money behind the fundamentally progressive Institute for Policy Studies but also a program designed to get Jews to marry Jews instead of Gentiles. And he was the chief supporter of the “radical” Texas Observer, which was not averse to criticizing him
and his industry.

Their relations with the press, if they could be persuaded to talk about it, centered on wonderment. They kept asking why the media wasn’t more interested in what they were doing, which seemed to be and was quite extraordinary. Weren’t such things newsworthy, like Anderson’s Interface moving toward zero environmental impact? The press largely ignored them except when they pulled off some exhibitionist media event, as Anita and Jeno often did.

Bob Townsend was something of an exception as he advanced “outrageous” advice, such as his thought that CEOs shouldn’t stay more than six years, which got him featured in the business press for a time.

If the present generation of rising businesspeople read about these CEOs’ civically engaged, environmentally attuned company practices, always connected to running a profit-generating business, they may be intrigued by the lack of wide diffusion of knowledge about these leaders in the mass media.

Examining the business world, I can see why, at least in the past, big business had reasons for their complacency. They had no interest in these pioneers because old-style business executives had no place for either civic or environmentalist consciousness. These businesspeople had short-range yardsticks by which they and their companies were measured. They looked especially at quarterly profits and used overly monetized and manipulative accounting. They came up with innovative ways to enrich them-selves and circumvent federal prohibitions. Stock options in stock buybacks promoted new metrics that led to staggering increases in executive compensation packages, which now tower over the average worker pay at their companies. The big CEOs had short tenures, which fed their myopia: their urge to “make the most while they can!”