William P. Barnett

The Thomas M. Siebel Professor of Business Leadership, Strategy, and Organizations
William P. Barnett
William P. Barnett
Future generations will judge us as to what type of bold action we do or don’t take today.
September 8, 2023

When William Barnett was 12, a substitute teacher at his junior high school scrapped the lesson plan to explain the greenhouse effect, drawing a detailed diagram on the chalkboard. Barnett listened with great interest about what happens when gases in Earth’s atmosphere trap the sun’s heat, warming the planet.

After the lecture, the teacher dismissed the class, but Barnett stayed at his desk. The substitute approached him, a concerned look on his face. “I said, this seems like it’s very important,” recalls Barnett, “and the teacher said, ‘Well, this isn’t going to be a problem until you’re really old.’ So now here I am.”

Barnett is a professor of business leadership, strategy, and organizations at Stanford Graduate School of Business, academic director of the Stanford Executive Program, and a professor at Stanford’s new Doerr School of Sustainability. In his over 30 years at Stanford, Barnett has studied competition among people and organizations, delving into what sparks exceptional performance and innovation. His work points out the drawbacks of intense competition within firms, and the benefits of competition among companies, or what he calls “Red Queen competition.”

“I’ve always been fascinated by organizations and leadership,” Barnett says.

He named his 2008 book The Red Queen Among Organizations: How Competitiveness Evolves after the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In one scene, in a chase, neither the Queen nor Alice moves from the spot where they’ve started. The Queen says: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Evolutionary biologists cite this iconic scene when they talk about nature’s so-called “evolutionary arms race,” in which two species evolve as fast as they can, but in the end, they maintain the same relationship to each other. Barnett argues that companies see a similar dynamic when they compete. His book examines the effects and perils of competing in two of the most competitive industries — computer manufacturing and commercial banking.

Barnett has shifted his research to study environmental sustainability. “It’s actually very hard to change your research perspective or direction as a faculty member,” Barnett says. “There’s a lot of momentum that happens. You end up editing journals, you have students, you get caught up in the literature and your expertise and your teaching requirements, and it carries you forward.”

Four years ago, former Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne asked Barnett to advise on the creation of a new school focused on climate and environmental sustainability. It was a turning point for Barnett. The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, one of the largest climate change-related schools in the United States, opened in 2022. Barnett fully committed to pursuing sustainability research.

“Courageous leadership requires we move in directions that are difficult.”

“I had to kill Bill,” he says. “I had to eliminate what was. I began to shut down the research I was doing so that it wouldn’t stop me from doing the next thing.” At the time, Barnett had also completed a manuscript for a book on organizational evolution. “I even stopped the presses on that,” he says.

Now, instead of publishing a book on how to grow and change companies in general, he’s rewriting his book using a sustainability lens. His research has transformed, too. His sustainability research looks at if — and how — organizations can build their resilience in the face of global climate change and how companies can adapt to the inevitable environmental changes.

“We’re looking at very real changes in our climate and earth’s ecosystem over the coming century,” Barnett says. “Even if we take corrective action now, these changes are already going to occur. We need proactive leadership by leaders at all levels in order to adapt to the coming changes.”

A Global Perspective on Sustainability

In 2022, Barnett became director of the Stanford Initiative on Business and Environmental Sustainability (SIBES), a joint effort of the Stanford GSB and the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. In that role, he’s creating working groups in different biospheres around the world, including in Israel, Chile, the Philippines, and Europe. “You can’t understand sustainability and stay in Palo Alto,” he says. The working groups involve locals — from shopkeepers and farmers and indigenous people to leaders in government, business, and NGOs. The groups provide vital information about the importance of sustainability in each location.

In the Philippines, for example, increased rainfall and the frequency and severity of super typhoons are leading to flooding and population displacement, as well as concerns around human health, food security, and biodiversity loss. Barnett encountered these issues first-hand when, weeks after he interviewed shopkeepers in Manila, the street he stood on sat under 10 feet of water following a super typhoon.

“They were struggling to feed their families and obtain potable water,” he says. “And these are the realities.”

Barnett works to identify issues, then helps organize student study trips to expose Stanford MBA students to the issues on location. Stanford Doerr School faculty teach in context. For instance, in August, one MBA student study group traveled to the Philippines with Doerr Professor Rodolfo Dirzo teaching on environmental justice.

The working groups have led to new research possibilities. The Israel group, for instance, includes a large number of ecological startup organizations — so-called “ecopreneurs.” Barnett has collected data on thousands of these startups and has found that many of the most innovative ones pivoted into sustainability.

“If the pattern in these data holds, generally, there are important implications for ecopreneurship globally,” Barnett says. “Startups all around the world could be incentivized to pivot into sustainability, a change that overnight would dramatically increase the amount of innovative energy focused on a wide variety of sustainability issues, from climate change to waste to food security and human health.”

The SIBES initiative is also providing a forum for state-of-the-art research on sustainability to be showcased at Stanford. Already, SIBES has held a series of 16 conferences over eight months that culminated in May, showcasing sustainability research by hundreds of scholars from dozens of universities around the world. Barnett, along with Stanford undergraduate Ingrid Ackermann, discuss each conference in a SIBES podcast series.

Focusing on the Supply Side

In a second ongoing study, Barnett is looking at what conditions and factors prompt companies and leaders to take proactive change to make their production practices more environmentally friendly.

“Most people think about sustainability as something that matters as a consumer,” he says. “Do I buy a certain type of container, or drive a certain type of car? I’m trying to shift the conversation to producers, to the supply side.”

While some organizations have enlightened leadership that’s acting to be more sustainable, others aren’t. “That’s creating multiple problems in terms of harmful greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and threatening human life itself,” Barnett says. But it’s clear that all companies need to be proactive now.

Barnett notes that part of the problem is that global markets are designed around a 19th- and 20th-century economy that favors fossil fuels. But what’s really needed is for the world economy to redesign markets to reward innovative efforts by organizations that benefit environmental and human sustainability. Then, leaders might be more motivated to act even before it’s required by policy. That would be a powerful driver of systemic change.

“Energy and biodiversity need to be explicitly built into the market design instead of being an afterthought,” Barnett says. “That’s an urgent matter. There’s not an even playing field out there.”

Ultimately, lasting change will happen at three levels, says Barnett: individuals, organizations, and the economy as a whole. First, people must believe and understand the reality of how the world is changing, while organizations need bold and enlightened leadership that drives companies to be proactive about sustainability.

“Courageous leadership requires we move in directions that are difficult,” says Barnett. “If the changes leaders are putting in place are easy, then they’re not doing enough.”

Finally, global markets redesigned to reward sustainability must be established, Barnett says. Change can be intimidating, he adds, but it must happen.

“We can always argue against change,” says Barnett, “but nothing exists today that wasn’t difficult to put in place. Future generations will judge us as to what type of bold action we do or don’t take today. I continue to hold out hope that with education and exposure to knowledge people will tend toward understanding the truth.”

Photos by Winni WIntermeyer

William P. Barnett
The Thomas M. Siebel Professor of Business Leadership, Strategy, and Organizations
El Cajon, California, USA
PhD, Business Administration, University of California, Berkeley
BA, Political Science and Economics , University of California, Berkeley
Academic Area
Organizational Behavior
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