Take a Trim Tab Approach to Climate Change

Often depicted as greedy and shortsighted, business leaders face a crucial opportunity on the issue of climate change to change that perception, says Amy Edmondson.
by Amy C. Edmondson

The "bully pulpit"—a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt back when the word "bully" meant terrific—originally referred to the US presidency and its tremendous potential for speaking out and influencing public opinion. Nowadays, the term describes any position with the potential to get the public's attention, and thereby educate people to influence the tide of events.

Prominent business leaders have a bully pulpit, if they want to take it, on the issue of climate change and environmental sustainability. Today's business leaders have visibility and media access that is unparalleled in history. No longer the gray-flannel-suited organization men of yesterday avoiding the spotlight even in senior positions, today's businessmen and women have Facebook pages, media offices, press releases, and much more at their disposal. But do they use these pulpits well?


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Large and growing numbers of business leaders acknowledge, behind closed doors—and some doors that are distinctly ajar—the threats to future generations, and even to business and society in the near term, created by their operations. For just one example, earlier this year a New York Times article reported that a growing number of business leaders are viewing climate change as a threat to supply chains and thus ultimately bottom lines. A good start. But CEOs of global companies like Coca-Cola, the company figuring most prominently in the Times piece, and Nike (also mentioned) must start to recognize and take responsibility for using the bully pulpit that they in fact occupy.

“When elected officials don't own this crucial responsibility, other leaders in society must step into the vacuum”

When elected officials don't own this crucial responsibility, other leaders in society must step into the vacuum. Why not business? Often depicted as greedy and shortsighted, consumed with this quarter's profits and blind to the larger impact of their actions on society, business leaders face a crucial opportunity today to change that perception (and that reality).

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, many thoughtful leaders throw up their arms, thinking, understandably, that my company is just a drop in the bucket. "Until regulations happen," they muse (and they will, eventually, just perhaps not fast enough to make the difference the world sorely needs), "there's really nothing I, or my company, can do to make a difference." That's where the "trim tab" comes in.

Quoting Wikipedia, "Trim tabs are small surfaces connected to the trailing edge of a larger control surface on a boat or aircraft" (e.g., a rudder on an ocean liner) to control or alter the direction of a very large craft (e.g., the ocean liner itself). How do you change the direction of an enormous ship like the Queen Mary? The rudder itself is far too big to be easily maneuvered by a single skipper. The trim tab, however, is tiny and thus easy for the captain to shift. The small trim tab's movement then creates a low-pressure zone that pulls the rudder around.

Inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller, with whom I worked years ago as a geodesic engineer, pointed out that anyone can act as a trim tab, in part by recognizing the potential downstream influence of small, high-leverage actions pointing in the right new direction. The trim tab's tiny movement has leverage. The right shift in the right place at the right time.

Business leaders must recognize the trim tab principle. Don't wait for the rest of the industry to act first. Just get started. Contribute, through action, to building pressure that pulls on the rudder and ultimately changes the course of the ocean liner. Of course when you're changing social systems, it's hard to know the precise mechanics of the influence your business actions can and will have. But it's a given that your business won't have any influence at all if no changes are made.

Pick your approach. Bully pulpit (advocacy, voice) as a means of influence? Or trim tab (small, well-placed actions that start a trend) as a means of influence? Your pick.

Either way, it's time for business leaders to get off the sidelines and make a difference.

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