By Ram Nidumolu

“This is business, not personal.”  How many of us have heard this at work?  It is as if we are expected to set aside our real being and put on our business persona when we enter through the corporate door.  For that matter, how many of us ever talk of being in the workplace?

Instead, almost all models of business leadership are typically about doing and having, i.e., what should business leaders do in terms of actions or have in terms of capabilities in order to succeed?  These conventional models are foundational to business-and-capitalism-as-usual.  While enormously successful in many ways, they have failed to address the collateral damage of material prosperity: ecological destruction estimated at $7.3 trillion per year, the widening inequality in society, and damage to the credibility of business as an institution for human good.  Their failure has also triggered new models of capitalism, variously labeled conscious, sustainable, shared value, connected, creative, and many others.

The latest effort to change business-as-usual is the B Team, co-founded by Sir Richard Branson, the founder and chairman of the Virgin Group, and Jochen Zeitz, the former chairman and CEO of PUMA.  It includes fourteen world-recognized business leaders, such as Arianna Huffington, microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus, and others.  For real and lasting change to happen, what these new models of capitalism need is a radically new model of business leadership that puts people and the planet on par with profits.  Given its importance, leadership is one of the three key challenges that the B Team has taken up for the short-term.

Ironically, we don’t have to look any further than our ancient wisdom traditions to find the seed for these new leadership models.   These traditions have typically emphasized our fundamental nature as human beings, rather than as human doings or havings.  As I point out in my forthcoming book on Being-centered leadership (“Two Birds in a Tree: Timeless Indian Wisdom for Business Leaders”), a new-yet-old model of business leadership offers hope for changing business-as-usual.  It will combine the wisdom traditions with modern science (especially related to the science of happiness and sustainability) to deeply connect business leaders to their foundational context of nature, humanity, and the institutional credibility of business.

In such being-centered leadership models, considerations such as the higher purpose of business and who you are at your core guide the material ends of your company.  The wellbeing of corporate stakeholders then naturally becomes the key goal of business leadership, just as it is increasingly becoming so for countries.  To understand what such business leaders look like, consider two pioneering leaders of global firms.

Guilherme Leal is the founder and co-chairman of Natura Cosmeticos, a Brazil-based beauty, personal care and household products firm that has been ranked the second most sustainable company in the world.  He has shown a tremendous long-term commitment to nature and local communities, even as he and his team focus on delivering returns to Natura’s shareholders.  Their commitment extends especially to safeguarding the Amazon forest where they get their ingredients, as well as to the tribes and indigenous population that live there.  The company’s slogan is bem estar bem (“wellbeing/being well”), where beauty is about everyone’s wellbeing.

Or consider Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, the giant consumer goods company that is globally considered the most sustainable company in the world. He has set Unilever on a path to sustainable business that is exemplary. In doing so, he has taken risks that few CEOs are willing to take.  One of his first acts as CEO was to get rid of quarterly reporting, which also meant he got rid of the need to give quarterly earnings guidance to investors.  He did so because, “I figured I couldn’t be fired on my first day.” This strategy of encouraging long-term investments has worked: ownership of Unilever shares by hedge funds – which tend to focus on short-term gains — dropped from 15% to 5% during 2009-13.

Guilherme Leal and Paul Polman are among the fourteen initial leaders of the B Team.  The great thing about their companies is that their focus on people and planet has in fact improved their profits.   Natura dominates the Brazilian market for beauty products and is also expanding globally in an aggressive way.  Its global sales in 2011 exceeded $3 Billion, which was 9% above the previous year.  Its share prices have climbed steadily and its earnings per share outperformed analyst expectations in 2012.

As for Unilever, in the four years since Polman took over as CEO, its performance has been exceptional: share price increased by 55%, its revenues grew by 25%, its operating costs reduced through streamlining its corporate structure, and it launched many new products and services. By contrast, Unilever’s main rival, Procter & Gamble fared considerably worse financially and recently replaced its CEO with the previous one.

The B Team’s leaders send out a clear message to other business leaders: You can do well financially if you are guided by the wellbeing of all your stakeholders, including humanity and nature.