Why Our World Would End if Tri-Sector Leaders Disappear

The world is currently plagued with so many issues. Global warming, drought, poverty, pandemics, and outbreaks feature in the news regularly.

Governments and non-governmental organizations are putting in the effort to solve many of these problems, yet they persist. A lot of factors account for this, but maybe we could solve them faster when businesses feature more in the scene.

Innovation, growth, and development since the industrial age have been driven by business entities. It was the business thought pattern that led to the development of the steam engine. The same thought pattern led to the gradual innovations in land, air, and sea travel. And at the moment, we’re talking about space travel.

The whole world is continually integrated because the internet is a business and a world for businesses.

Every problem seen as a business problem is faced with a different mindset. The introduction of 5G internet is still intriguing.

When Henry Ford decided to produce his famous V-8 motor, he chose to build an engine with the entire eight cylinders cast in one block and instructed his engineers to produce a design for the engine. The design was placed on paper, but the engineers agreed, to a man, that it was simply impossible to cast an eight-cylinder engine-block in one piece.

Ford replied,” Produce it anyway.” It took time, but they did the ‘impossible’.

Why then should pressing global issues be left out?

Management guru, Peter Drucker, said: “Every single global issue and social issue of our day is an opportunity in disguise.”

True. And this was a factor that led to the success of Novo Nordisk in China.

Novo Nordisk is a leading global healthcare company with a focus on diabetes care. The company places tri-sector leadership as a core value.

In the wake of China’s tremendous economic growth, Chinese societies have been facing an alarming increase in diabetic patients. Current estimations give that over 116 million Chinese are suffering from diabetes, putting them at risk of heart disease, kidney failure, and stroke. Many more are in the risk zone of becoming diabetic. This is putting a lot of strain on the public healthcare system.

Having been present in China for about two decades and a comprehensive study had been carried out, much of the problem boiled down to poor patient education.

Instead of seeing the problem as an avenue to increase profit margins by selling treatment for diabetes, the company went a different way. It started community programs to teach how to prevent diabetes.

This approach to the problem has helped to strengthen the company’s relations with the Chinese government and several communities.

This strategic commitment helped to pave the way for partnerships with the Chinese Ministry of Health and the World Diabetes Foundation. A typical tri-sector partnership.

These partnerships have also helped the company gain a leading market position and strong financial results while dominating the large Chinese market.

Another case study is that of Coca Cola.

Water scarcity is a global issue — more severe in some places than others. In South India, water scarcity has been a long term issue.

In 2003, the agitations of the people of South India and NGOs forced the government to place a ban on the production by the Coca Cola company in the region. The production of Coke required much water.

To produce a liter of coke, three liters of water was needed.

In response, the company hired a tri-sector leader, Jeff Seabright, to develop a strategy for ‘sustainable water stewardship’. Jeff was a new guy in the private sector. He had extensive political and diplomatic experience working with the US Senate, the Foreign Service, USAID, and President Clinton’s White House Task Force on Climate Change.

He started by studying the locations of Coca Cola production plants and the research revealed that 39% of them are located in the world’s most water-stressed areas. With this data, risk models and recommendations were introduced. The work was the first on the water usage rate of the multinational.

By 2013, significant progress had been made to achieve water sustainability. Instead of three, two liters of waters were used to produce a liter of Coke. And, in the same year, the company already achieved 52% of its water sustainability target for 2020.

Jeff went on to partner with the USAID, Greenpeace, and World wild Fund. He exemplifies the ‘tri-sector athlete’ as defined by Prof Joseph Nye of the Kennedy School of Government. The term stands for someone who can “engage and collaborate across the private, public, and social sectors.”

He was able to draw from his cross-sector experience and engage in specific languages the needs, aspirations, and incentives of people in the three sectors. He didn’t present the water issue to Coca Cola as an environmental issue, he presented it as an operational risk. Expectedly, this got the attention of the company. More, he knew how the USAID bureaucracy worked and what incentive got their attention.

Here are some key features of Tri-sector leaders

  • A premium on Public Value

Tri-sector leadership places a premium on public value. It goes beyond making a profit, it is about making an impact. This singular purpose helps it attract government agencies and nonprofits.

  • Multi-Sector Approach to Issues

A tri-sector leader knows how to negotiate, allocate resources, and come up with creative solutions to problems. Negotiation is mostly the forte of government officers; effective allocation of resources is done in the private sector; nonprofits come up with creative ideas to solve global problems.

  • An Intellectual Thread

Tri-sector leaders are highly knowledgeable. Instead of focusing on a single sector, tri-sector leaders tend to be generalists. They can speak the languages of the people in several sectors and depict a deeper understanding of the issues at hand. They achieve this by working in several sectors. A brief stint in the nonprofit world, a tenure on a government board, and a volunteer experience with an agency could present so much useful experience needed for the future.

  • Network

A factor that helped Jeff Seabright was an extensive network. He was able to network with policymakers and nonprofits to address the concerns of several communities about water. An extensive network takes years to build, but it pays off in the long run. David Hayes was Deputy Secretary of Interior of the United States and his tenure faced a critical issue: the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

He was able to draw on the network he built over the years as an environmental lawyer and memberships on the boards of several nonprofits on the environment. He recalls “It was the most complex situation that I had ever had to deal with — but I did have an advantage. I had worked in the business sector and the nonprofit sector. I knew many of the people in those sectors, and those I didn’t know I could quickly understand. I could stand in their shoes, which gave me a head start as we grappled to solve the crisis.”


The world needs leaders who combine triple strengths. A business approach to each problem while leveraging on governmental and nonprofit connections and resources will go a long way in reducing most of the world’s problems. The frontiers of the business world have made it clear that nothing is impossible. The public value may have to come before profit or we find an equilibrium.

To become a tri-sector athlete, you have to be deliberate. You must be willing to gather knowledge, experience, and connections in several sectors. Volunteer on a cause you care about, serve on a board, be a generalist, and meet people.




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John Ajayi

John Ajayi

Walking through this adventure called life. Am I the only one who thinks this way or life is just like Jumanji without dinosaurs?

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