‘The fish rots from the head’ is a phrase widely used to depict organisational failure as the failure of top echelon leadership. While its origin has been a subject of dispute, there is no controversy about its essence. Hence, it forms the basis for the title of Bob Garratt’s bestselling book: The Fish Rots from the Head: The Crisis in Our Boardrooms: Developing the Crucial Skills of the Competent Director.
To underscore the relevance of this book, Sir Adrian Cadbury, one of the apostles of effective corporate governance, described it as one which no director must overlook. Garratt affirmed that “An organisation’s success or failure depends on the performance of its board…” Over the years, a lot of evidence has been amassed to validate Garratt’s declaration.
However, without demeaning the value of corporate performance at large, I regard corporate sustainability performance as a similarly pressing concern. All the more because the increasingly widespread concern sustainability creates among organisations worldwide makes management exercise of leadership in organisations, to boost corporate sustainability performance a major real-world, contemporary problem. Likewise, leadership and top management have been identified as vital in embedding sustainability and advancing corporate sustainability performance. As Morsing and Oswald (2009:96) put it, “The challenges facing any organization in ensuring sustainability provide a number of issues for senior managers to contend with in their leadership of their organization.”
The importance of corporate sustainability performance is interwoven with that of sustainability.. Today, sustainability has become a front-line worldwide issue of increasing importance to academics as well as executives in the C-suite (a term we use interchangeably with “top management team”). The increasing importance of sustainability as a core corporate issue is further buttressed by the results of a recent survey of more than 3,795 executive and manager respondents from 113 countries, which indicate that the number of companies that have sustainability as a top management agenda item jumped from 46 percent in 2010 to 65 percent in 2014 (Kiron et al., 2015).
Contemporary management literature on C-suite executives indicates that they play a strategic leadership role in organizations. Although some early researchers define C-suite executives as those who also served on the board of directors, most successive researchers use a range of definitions, such as those executives holding senior-most offices (e.g., senior vice-president, executive vice-president; or all the executives listed or reported in statutory filings; or the top five highest paid executives including the CEO.
In aligning myself with the sense in which successive researchers use the term C-suite, I believe that C-suite executives owe a duty to humanity in ensuring that they actively seek new and better ways to embed sustainability and advance corporate sustainability performance.
Kiron, D., Kruschwitz, N., Haanaes, K., Reeves, M., Fuisz-Kehrbach, S.-K., & Kell, G. (2015). Joining forces: collaboration and leadership for sustainability. Mit Sloan Management Review, 56(3), 1-32.
Morsing, M., & Oswald, D. (2009). Sustainable leadership: management control systems and organizational culture in Novo Nordisk A/S. Corporate Governance, 9(1), 83-99. doi:10.1108/14720700910936083