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From Leadership to Stewardship: Charting Asia’s Sustainable Future

Insights from Egon Zehnder’s Leadership Dialogue

Businesses today strive for longevity amid complexity, paving the way for stewardship not just leadership. Stewardship transcends traditional organizational silos to embrace interconnectedness, inclusivity, and resilience. In a recent panel hosted by Egon Zehnder’s Singapore office, we explored the critical intersection of sustainability stewardship, leadership and the evolving global landscape with public and private sector leaders. 

Moderated by Catherine Zhu, who heads Egon Zehnder’s Global Sustainability Practice, the panel featured prominent leaders: 

  • Jim Rowan, President & CEO, Volvo Cars
  • Tuang-Liang Lim, Government Chief Sustainability Officer, Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment, Singapore 
  • Robin Hu, Advisor Senior Director and Former Vice Chairman Asia, Temasek International 

What follows are the key takeaways from the discussion: 

Leadership as Engine of the Sustainability Journey  

The transformation toward sustainability is not just a debate about strategy or technology, and leadership is an indispensable part of the equation. Leaders who excel in this area can move beyond advocacy to the actual integration of sustainable principles into their business models. They are visionaries who can inspire action, foster collaboration, and demonstrate resilience when balancing short-term challenges with long-term impact. 

As discussed in the panel, CEOs embarking on decarbonization must deftly manage potential controversies and complexities. This is where non-executive boards play a critical role in providing the space and freedom for CEOs to exercise sound judgment and make decisions with long-term benefits without being myopic about short-term results.

Beyond Leadership, It is also about Stewardship

Leadership commands from the top, while stewardship is valued as the ability to forge connections among stakeholders to drive change.

Leaders should envision stewardship as a three-dimensional cone, transcending the traditional hierarchical triangle. Unlike the organizational structure where leadership sits at the apex of the triangle, leaders now sit in the center of the circle in the stewardship model. This distinction is imperative as stewardship is about working with an ecosystem – with the leader as part of that ecosystem. Understanding this concept is crucial, enabling stewardship leaders to connect across all segments of the ecosystem. 



Today’s leaders will need different dimensions of skills. The stewardship leaders embody refined communication, deep empathy, and a broad understanding of perspectives both within the organization and among stakeholders. Through this understanding, leaders can develop a win-win approach, which may not always be a linear road but a zigzag pathway with a longer-term view of achieving the best possible outcomes for all.

While it is hard to do, “leaders today need to care deeply about their purpose, and not to care too much about what happens to their positions.” 

High-Performing Boards Enable Sustainability

Boards play a large role in shifting the organizational direction on sustainability – and, to a certain extent, provide some level of protection to the leadership trying to do the right thing for the business, environment and society. Effective counsel to boards is crucial to navigate diverging viewpoints and reconcile the desire for a positive image with accountability for corporate performance.

When making large investments, these challenges are magnified in balancing differing demands from various stakeholders. Invariably, margins in the short term will come under strain, but from a long-term perspective, the outcomes will massively outperform the competition.  

As such, boards need to be more robust and better at taking a longer-term view. This includes providing air cover for their CEOs and executive management teams to go through the big transitions. This calls for diverse board composition, selecting individuals who not only possess relevant experience but also embody a profound sense of purpose, vision and integrity. 

Effective stewardship can be enabled by adopting a learning mindset, understanding the link between risk, resilience, and opportunity, and empowering executives to embed purpose and performance throughout the organization. Boards can step up as stewards by leveraging their experience to help executives embrace complexity and set the tone from the top with humility.

Public-Private Synergy Generates Deeper Action 

On a macro level, public policy and corporate sustainability efforts must synergize to realize Asia's environmental ambitions. Government initiatives can set the stage, but only when corporate efforts are aligned with the national agenda can sustainability propel forward. 

Having a strong public-private partnership is key to sustainability success. These partnerships often lead to innovative solutions that might not emerge from independent endeavors. Collaboration is especially critical to bringing a complex ecosystem to work together and to be able to deliver small wins collectively. Solo or individual company wins are not good enough. Sustainability is one area where we need the critical mass of people to move in tandem.

Accelerating Sustainability with Technology and Innovation 

Technology plays a key role in advancing sustainability, as most of our solutions today are designed and optimized for a carbon-intensive environment. Without breakthrough technology changing many aspects of the modern conveniences and lifestyle we take for granted today, we cannot achieve our sustainability targets. Hence, breakthrough technology and investment opportunities will be the drivers of decarbonization goals.

To achieve this, panelists discussed the need for accelerating conversations not just about technology development and financial considerations but, more importantly, about integrating policies with technology so that we can keep abreast and move as fast as possible. At the same time, we need leaders to rise to the challenge of not only adopting but also driving the development of innovative technologies to meet environmental goals and justifying the imperative needs of diverse stakeholders. 

Asian Stewardship Style Embodies Sustainability

Lastly, Asian stewardship, with its unique cultural underpinnings, presents an intriguing facet of sustainability practices. Family-run and state-owned enterprises significantly shape the Asian business landscape. This Asian perspective encourages stewardship that aligns closely with long-term wealth accumulation and sustainable practices, as there is an inherent desire to pass down a prosperous and healthy business to the next generation. The values embedded in these organizations contribute to a form of stewardship that shapes business practices rooted in taking care of resources and making sacrifices now so that they can leave a legacy for future generations.

Ultimately, stewardship starts with a simple mindset: “We are trying to be good ancestors for future generations.”

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