What Leaders Can Learn from Patagonia’s Founder
Urban Images / Shutterstock.com

What Leaders Can Learn from Patagonia’s Founder

Four Lessons in Changing the Rules (and the World)

On September 14, the B-Corp Patagonia announced that all Patagonia’s future profits will be placed in a trust that benefits environmental protection in perpetuity. A letter by founder Yvon Chouinard, 83, said, “As of now, Earth is our only shareholder. Instead of ‘going public,’ you could say we’re ‘going purpose.’ Instead of extracting value from nature and transforming it into wealth for investors, we’ll use the wealth Patagonia creates to protect the source of all wealth.”

While Patagonia could simply make a good product and enjoy healthy success—both of which they certainly do—there are many competitors who create products that are arguably equivalent in quality. Patagonia stands apart from the competition because of Chouinard’s dedication to lead and innovate from a values-centric place, going back to the company’s decision in 1985 to donate 1% of all profits to benefit the environment. They also became one of the first B-Corps in California in 2011. “I learned at an early age that it’s better to invent your own game,” Chouinard said in 2011. “Then you can always be a winner.”

Patagonia’s newest move to donate profits in perpetuity changes the conversation around what corporate philanthropy looks like in our capitalist society, and challenges the old business impulse around valuing profit over people. It’s yet unclear what this will mean for other corporate entities, or whether others will follow. But, it’s safe to say this decision is an unorthodox move when a recession is potentially impending, when companies historically decrease their charitable giving. But Patagonia is nothing if not consistent.

Chouinard is more than just an expert in his field; he’s a thought leader. While experts are necessary to keep the world moving, a thought leader helps direct where the world moves. When a company is led by a thought leader rather than an expert, new pathways are forged and industries evolve and take new shapes. Chouinard, along with other thought leaders, tend to capture some consistent qualities in their leadership:

1. Thought leaders break rules and make new ones.

Experts follow trusted conventional wisdom as they go about their work; thought leaders don’t hold themselves hostage to old ways of doing things, but rather they are willing to forge new paths, try doing things differently than they’ve been done before, and often make new rules in the process.

2. Thought leaders center their values in everything they do.

When you know your values and center them in everything you do, you don’t have to consider, “What would a strong leader do in this moment?” Your values will light a clear path.

3. Thought leaders have a personal content strategy.

Every organization needs a content marketing strategy to remain relevant, but the leaders who are able to become shapers of culture and industry beyond their organizations have their own content strategies to talk about how they do things differently.

4. Thought leaders harness the power of storytelling.

Building a clear through-line from where you came from, to how you developed your values, to how that impacts your leadership is key to being an influential force and thought leader.

From living out of his car, to finding passion in nature, to creating a business to fill a need that supported his passion, becoming one of the first B-Corporations in California, to giving away the company’s profits for the betterment of everyone on the planet, Chouinard’s ability to center values and connect them to his company’s mission—and to communicate that story—is central to his impact as a thought leader.

In his storytelling, Chouinard wrote multiple books that combined his personal background with his unique business philosophies, celebrating our human interconnectedness and the health of the planet above individual enrichment. For example, in one of his books, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman (2005), Chouinard shares how his deep value for the outdoors became part of the fabric (pun intended!) of Patagonia’s company culture in which workers are encouraged to set their own schedules to create space for being in nature. Today’s work-from-home culture is nearly ubiquitous, but in 2005, the idea of allowing employees to set their own hours and—gasp!—go surfing during the day was unheard of. In the book, Chouinard said, “Patagonia exists to challenge conventional wisdom and present a new style of responsible business. We believe the accepted model of capitalism that necessitates endless growth and deserves the blame for the destruction of nature must be displaced. . . . It took fifteen years to write the first edition of this book because it took that long to prove to ourselves that we can break the rules of traditional business and make it not just work but work even better.”

Did you catch the secret ingredient to thought leadership in his quote? Rule breaking. Experts follow the rules; thought leaders break old rules and make better ones. That kind of rule-breaking can be scary for leaders, but leading from a place of fear rarely creates change or success.

Of all the lessons in thought leadership, none are greater than that of storytelling. Stories connect us as humans and shape our perceptions of the world. Storytelling is the most ancient tool for human cohesion and progress. This was true in ancient times and it is true today.

If you are a leader wanting to elevate your expertise into thought leadership, you need a content strategy that creates a through-line from your story, values, and how you are choosing to change the rules. What rules are you breaking in your work, and how do those broken rules connect with your story and values? What rules are you creating? And finally, how can you share your story for impact?

Amy Quale has been in the writing and publishing industry for fifteen years. She co-founded Wise Ink Creative Publishing in 2012 with a focus on publishing books to create impact and change. She has an MA in English, is a 2017 graduate of Yale School of Management’s Leadership Strategies in Book Publishing. She lives in the Twin Cities with her family.