Ray Anderson: A Planetary Hero and a Legacy of Leadership

August 9, 2011

By Anthony Cortese, President, Second Nature

Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface, great leader, mentor and friend passed away this week after a long bout with cancer at age 77. He was and continues to be the icon of what a successful business must look like to survive indefinitely and lead society on a more healthy, fair and sustainable path.

Ray showed against all odds and often cynicism from others in business that it was not only possible but profitable, essential, moral and sustainable to run a business that mimics nature in every way it operates. He was a fierce competitor and a great believer in the power of business, with the right leadership, ethics and incentives, to move society in a just and sustainable direction. He understood and tried to lead a life of integrity, caring, morality and sustainability in the broadest and deepest sense as a person and as a business leader. I met him in the early 90′s when he joined a number of national leaders to form the Natural Step US. I was privileged to be part of that group. He became an instant mentor and friend and took on the cause of calling on higher education to become an agent of transformative change for a sustainable society. He was the keynote speaker at several Second Nature regional workshops from our very early days and at the June 2009 summit of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. He appropriately became the darling of college campuses, gave several commencement speeches and probably over 500 lectures and presentations at colleges and universities. He was awarded numerous honorary degrees including his last from his alma mater, Georgia Tech. The Interface story is one of the most widely used case studies in business schools across the country and the world. Whenever I wanted someone from the private sector to make the case for education for sustainability, Ray was always at the top of the list and always the best. He did this in so many walks of life – government (e.g., co-chair of President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development), numerous national and international business organizations, NGOs and religious groups.

For me he was a great mentor, colleague and friend who was an endless source of inspiration during all the years I have been with Second Nature. The greatest tribute I can give him is that I always felt that I should rise to the highest possible level of being when I was around him. The amazing thing was that it was almost effortless to do so. He had that effect on me and on many others who interacted with him. It was his clarity of purpose, strength of character and his dogged pursuit of a dream for a better society – leading through example – that was so powerful and infectious. It was that persistence and constant innovation over two decades that kept me going through all the challenging times that SN had. During SN’s darkest financial hours from 2002-2004, I kept the SN dream alive as a consultant to Interface while pursuing the development of the Education for Sustainability Western Network which was the precursor to AASHE. I can honestly say that I might not have had the courage to help launch the ACUPCC if it were not for his vision and influence. Most importantly, he was always upbeat, kind, supportive and generous with his thoughts and his time. He was truly a citizen of the planet and an iconic person of all ages.

There have been many fitting tributes to Ray in the last two days and there will continue to be in the days to come. There are very few things that I know for certain, but there are a few. One is that reflection, sorrow, grief and prayer is an essential and healthy part of life and moving on, which he would want us to do. The other is that the best way to celebrate Ray’s life is for SN and the ACUPCC to be the greatest possible success in transforming higher education for the good of society.

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