“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”—Archimedes.
Being a leader today is more daunting than ever before. The pace of technological innovation is immense, the volume of information, unprecedented, and we have more generations working side by side, struggling to understand each other, than at any other time in history. As if this were not enough, many are now tasked with leading a remote, global workforce, and must manage this corresponding cultural complexity. Leaders must be masterful visionaries, communicators, and coaches. They must excel at building relationships, driving performance, creating alignment, and fostering engagement. They must be impeccable ambassadors of the professional culture their organization needs to survive and thrive.
There are so many things leaders can and should be doing that today’s talented men and women rarely have the attention to consider if where they are investing their blood, sweat, and tears is making much of a difference to what they really care about. Yes, they are earning a living. They are even climbing the ladder, receiving recognition, accolades, and the opportunity to add their strategic voices. But, in order to do this well and add voices that truly serve humanity, they need time to look beyond their individual specialties, industries, and countries to pinpoint the key levers to positive, global change. They must stop and ask themselves: What is the net impact of our work? Are we making the world a better place —and in what ways are we making it worse? Are we doing all we can to save our planet from impending destruction (climate change, climate wars, world hunger, disease, a growing population that is quickly maxing out the Earth’s resources)? Is the outcome of all my efforts truly worthy of my one and only precious life?
Today, the real leaders of our world know there is a lever that can address so much of what concerns the human race: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, world hunger, soaring medical costs, failing healthcare systems, over-fishing and resulting oceanic dead zones, global warming, drought, deforestation, and the torture, rape, and murder of billions of animals in our factory farming system. This lever is veganism.
Yes: veganism is the elephant in the room whenever we discuss human health, the health and sustainability of our planet, world hunger, and even wars like the one in Syria.1 Veganism has the potential to solve these and many other global problems. Yet, we ignore it, perhaps because accepting it challenges our entire food system, almost all of our cultural celebrations, and our own daily habits. Becoming vegan is simple but it is not convenient; it has vast and far-reaching implications beyond our personal lives. Hence, we are not talking about it, as most of us are not yet even ready to consider it personally.
Dr. T. Colin Campbell, leading researcher of The China Project and author of The China Study,2 shared that when he presented his 40-plus years of extensive research to top government officials and policy makers, supported by what he believed was indisputable evidence for the superiority of a whole-food, plant-based (vegan) diet for optimal human health, the room went silence. The only response, he said, came from one man who stood up to say, “Colin, are you really going to take away all the foods we love?”
Fifty years ago, someone who suggested that smoking tobacco is unhealthy would have been greeted with the same incredulity. No one thought twice about chain smoking, even around children. Or, as my mother did, in the hospital bed right after giving birth. Advertisers claimed that “4 of out 5 doctors recommend Camel.”3 Thus, my mother never once thought smoking was bad for her health, even after a heart attack left her old and weak for the four years she lived before a massive stroke killed her at the age of 62. A person who decried this addiction would have heard “Are you really going to take away the habit we love?” Today, we all know how dangerous smoking is and many people have made the choice to give it up, or at the very least, significantly limit this “pleasure” in favor of better health and a longer life. Perhaps we wonder sometimes how our parents or grandparents could have ever turned a blind eye.
Fifty years from now, what will people be saying about our refusal to face up to the dangers and costs of our current diet? Only this time, it is not merely our own health that is at stake. This time, the health and sustainability of the only home we have ever known—Earth—hangs in the balance.
Recently, I had the incredible opportunity to spend a week with Sir Richard Branson and 30 other socially-minded entrepreneurs at his private home on Necker Island. Over dinner one evening, I asked Branson why I could find no mention of veganism when researching the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference held in Paris. I had, for example, read that electric cars collected delegates and solar panels were installed, but it did not seem that vegan meals were served. I also asked why I could find no mention of veganism in The Elders’ work on climate change, or within the priorities of The B Team. Because Branson is the thoughtful leader he espouses to be, he graciously and seriously considered my question. And I could see he was struggling to find a really good, comprehensive response for me. He then told me that he had stopped eating his favorite food—beef—two years ago because of the impact animal agriculture has on our planet. In addition, he shared that other changes were in the works and he would soon be publishing these findings.
Two days later, he posted this via LinkedIn: “Not only can the choices we make in what we eat help us create healthier and happier people, we can also create a healthier and happier world. There are simple changes we can make in our everyday life that could have a huge impact. Almost two years ago, I gave up what was previously one of my favourite foods: beef.”4 And, I anticipate more will come.
I was excited to learn that Branson is already starting to employ the lever called veganism. Giving up beef is a good beginning; still, there is so much more that we can and must do. What about the over-fishing of our oceans? What about the World Health Organization’s recent warning that consumption of processed meat (ham, bacon, deli meats, hot dogs, sausages, corned beef, and beef jerky, as well as canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauces) is linked to cancer?5 What about the fact that two of the world’s top environmental experts tell us that unless we shift at least 50% of animal-based foods to plant-based alternatives by 2020, we will face “catastrophic climate change.”?
“Greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric carbon have continued to rise, now almost 50% of today’s livestock products must be replaced with better alternatives by 2017 – or by 2020 at the latest – in order to achieve the objective of the Kyoto Protocol and avert catastrophic climate change. No other pragmatic worldwide action to reverse climate change has been proposed by anyone.”6
We don’t have time to dance around.
What the world needs now are real leaders, people who will not merely lead our organizations to profit but who can and will be brave enough to lead us in saving our planet. The urgency is greater than most of us know, while those who do know are overwhelmed at the work of educating the rest of us. As a global community, we are already starting to feel the consequences and I fear the knock at our door will only get louder and louder.
There are many brave men and women who are leading the way, including Philip Wollen, Shaun Monson, Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, James Aspey, John and Ocean Robbins, Melanie Joy, Bob Linden, Howard Lyman, David Robinson Simon, Philip Lymbery, Ethan Brown, Josh Tetrick, Dr. John A. McDougall, Dr.Dean Ornish, Dr.Joel Fuhrman, and Dr.Michael Greger. Most recently Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, announced that the number one “game-changing” trend of the future is the consumption of plant-based proteins instead of meat.7
There is a way for us to have our “meat” and eat it too. People want good food and they should have it. We really can have it all and more: healthy and delicious food that promotes our ultimate health while allowing us to feed the world, protect our oceans, land, waters, and environment, and finally stop the torture we inflict upon billions of animals annually, a torture so horrific most of us would never endorse it if we saw it with our own eyes 8.
“One of the main ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to reduce the consumption of animal proteins. It’s not necessarily the consumption of meat, but the consumption of animal proteins … There’s meat that you can arrive at differently, in terms of thinking of meat as amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, minerals, and water. Those five parts can all be harvested from plants directly and actually provided to consumers in the form of ‘meat.’” – Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown.9
Veganism is a change that can occur this decade and, it needs to occur this decade. We don’t have 20 years.
“Using renewable energy to achieve the same outcome wouldn’t be possible, according to the International Energy Agency, which has estimated that sufficient renewable energy would cost at least US$36 trillion and take at least 20 years. This would be long past the time available to stop a potentially catastrophic rise in sea levels — which is said to imperil some of the world’s most important cities, including Mumbai, London, and New York City.
In contrast, large-scale but simple changes in food and forest are available almost overnight.”10
Leadership is a funny thing. We can be great at envisioning a future and mobilizing people to achieve it, but we can be entirely wrong about the direction (ie. Adolf Hitler). Real leaders have always lifted their head above the crowd, paid attention to what others are too busy to see, and asked, What are we doing? Does it make sense? What is needed? What is right and good? Whether you care about animals, your health, the health of those you love the most, healthcare costs; the environment; and/or world hunger, it really doesn’t matter. The world will be vegan because it has to, and, you will either be among those leading the way (and take advantage of the money to be made) or you will follow.
Susanne Biro is confidant and coach to C-suite and executive level leaders, a Forbes contributor, TEDx speaker, author and vegan advocate. For over 17 years, she has worked internationally with senior-level leaders in some of the world’s best companies. Whether coaching one-on-one or authoring, designing, and delivering leadership programs, her passion is the same: to help leaders reach their next level of personal, professional, and leadership mastery. Susanne can be reached at 604.864.5408 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org