This study examines how Chinese firms began responding to worsening environmental concerns in the late 1990s. Combining predictions from control theory, escalation of commitment, and goal theory, we seek to explain how leaders' cognitions shape the formation of novel responses to the value-laden issue of corporate greening. We propose an iterative model that links leaders' principles with corporate actions and test it using survey data gathered from 360 firms. The model views strategy organically, as a set of adaptive goals and behaviors, and highlights the role of systemic and local feedback loops in strategy formation. We find that top executives who champion new strategic initiatives monitor early success or failure, and adjust their efforts to match early performance feedback. Perceptions of satisfactory performance strengthen leaders' efforts towards their initial target, while perceptions of unsatisfactory performance diminish them. This feedback relationship is invariant throughout favorable or unfavorable expectancies of success, contrary to the contingent prediction of control theory. The model also examines how top-down and bottom-up strategic initiatives combine to help firms maintain a positive momentum of change when champions' efforts decline in the face of premature failure signals. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.