Conscious leader: What does it mean to do business with full integrity to your principles?

As the words ‘sustainability’, ‘circular economy’, ‘ESG’ and ‘conscious business’ become ever more part of our daily business vocabulary, I can’t help but wonder: What does it mean to be a conscious business leader living and leading in full integrity to what you believe is important?

Conscious leadership can appear somewhat idealistic, and it is really when investigating how the principles of it are lived in the real world that the rubber hits the road. We are intent on speaking to conscious leaders across the board to understand and share how they do it.

Recently we had the opportunity to explore this with Tom Greenwood, owner of Wholegrain Digital, a BCorp web design agency based in London, UK, that builds websites with a reduced carbon footprint and gets involved in consulting with clients to educate them about sustainable business practices. We asked Tom what it means to him to be running a business in alignment with the principles that are important to him.

“Since we started the business 15 years ago, we’ve ingrained the concept of sustainability in different ways,” Tom said. What does that mean, practically speaking?

“Environmental responsibility is at the core of what we aim to do as a company.” There’s the operational side of exploring how simply to function as a business in an environmentally responsible way. This includes standard energy efficient practices, and helping the team find ways to make their homeworking more efficient, but also includes seeing how Tom and his team can push these boundaries. For example, the company has implemented a no-fly policy for the past seven years, which sees them not flying anywhere for business. They’ll find ways of operating around that, which can lead to some unusual and inventive solutions, like the whole team taking a train to a European destination for a business offsite rather than taking planes. “Our policy is something that a lot of other businesses have been really intrigued by and are curious to learn about,” said Tom.

What about clients? Walking the talk here involves not simply offering and delivering solutions but getting under the skin of the client’s own thinking and deeper purpose. Tom asks: “What is the impact of the work we’re doing? We’re a web design agency. Anyone who’s paying for a website is spending money because they’re expecting a return on that investment and want to achieve their goals.”

“So, what are their goals that you’re helping them achieve? Are those goals aligned with their own values? And if we help them achieve their goals, is that going to help push the world in the direction we want it to go? Or is it going to push the world in a direction that is misaligned and not where we want it to go?”

Tom Greenwood

Asking himself these questions has led Tom to realise that you can invest in some top-level principles, but that things are complex and grey in the middle. They have to really challenge themselves to understand why a project doesn’t feel right, even though it might sound good on paper.

It also leads to the challenging conundrum of taking on a project that’s offering money when you’ve got salaries to pay.

“It makes you learn about yourself, feeling yourself being tempted, but feeling there’s something in your gut saying that maybe this isn’t what we should be doing. We come up against that a lot, but it’s a really interesting exploration.”

Over the years, Tom and Wholegrain Digital have turned down over a million pounds worth of business, which is no small number for an SME, but the consequence, he says, has been much more fulfilling. 

“We’re working on things that we feel are really making a positive difference in the world.”

Sticking to their principles with integrity helps them to attract the type of people who they really want to work with, so they now have a great team who are very much aligned, but it also brings in more of the type of work they want to do, because their prospective clients see that this is a company that has integrity.

“If we’re an organisation that’s really trying to do something positive in the world, then we want to work with people who truly get it, who truly care.”

Wholegrain Digital’s environment responsibility practices have also led them to exploring, over the last few years, the environmental impact of digital technology. When they started the company in 2007 and found out about this, they realised no one was talking about it and they struggled to find anyone in the industry who knew anything about it. “Everyone thought digital technology didn’t have any environmental impact because it’s virtual, it’s in the cloud, it doesn’t really exist,” said Tom. It led them on a fascinating journey of challenging themselves to not make these sorts of assumptions, but to find out the truth – and then to share that knowledge as widely as possible so that it can become as usual practice as possible for others.

Tom discovered the value, but also the inherent tension, in making big investments to research and learn new things, and deveop new skills and technology, but then also want to give it away because you are motivated by everyone knowing about it and doing this contributes to the greater good.

“If you want to contribute a positive future, whether that’s environmentally or socially, there’s no point in just doing your little thing and not telling anybody else about it.”

We hope this article has given you some ideas about how you might employ your own principles and integrity in the way you run your own business. If you are interested in furthering the conversation, or finding out more about what we do, get in touch with us

We are committed to learning from conscious leaders around the world and sharing their knowledge, ideas, and practices so that all leaders everywhere may benefit from a more conscious, kind and considered leadership. We support these leaders in multiplying their positive impact in the world.

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