From Heroic Figures to Systems Thinkers: Rethinking Leadership For Sustainability

By Andrea Thompson

We’ve seen that the cultural narrative we have about heroic leadership is out of date — but what to replace it with? The current business environment contains multiple interconnecting challenges, many linked to the sustainability issues we face such as climate change, shrinking biodiversity and increasing inequality in society. Systems thinking may be the answer.


Leadership has undergone a significant transformation throughout history, adapting to the evolving needs of society. In a previous article, we see that the traditional heroic view of leadership holds us back from addressing the complex challenges we face. New approaches to leadership are needed that embrace systems thinking and collaboration.


For much of Western history, leadership was synonymous with heroic figures, individuals possessing exceptional qualities and capabilities. As societies evolved, individuals and businesses began to recognise the importance of relationships and social dynamics in leadership. The focus expanded from individual leaders to the interactions between leaders and their followers. Traits such as empathy and effective communication were now highly regarded as ideal leadership qualities — these traits enabled leaders to inspire others and empower others to make their own decisions.

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As organisations began to realise the importance of social dynamics and relationships in leadership, the concept of systems leadership emerged.

Systems leadership is something that traditional indigenous societies had already been practicing for hundreds of years. In Aotearoa New Zealand, for example:

‘Indigenous Māori have an intricate, holistic and interconnected relationship with the natural world and its resources … The Māori world view acknowledges … the interrelationship of all living things as dependent on each other, and Māori seek to understand the total system and not just parts of it.’ (Harmsworth)

Just as a forest consists of countless trees that interact and depend on each other, communicating via a complex network of latticed fungi under the ground, systems leadership views organisations and societies as intricate ecosystems. It emphasises collaboration, shared responsibility, and the ability to consider multiple perspectives and leverage diverse expertise.


As the world grapples with pressing challenges related to climate change, resource depletion, and social inequality, the limitations of previous leadership approaches become increasingly apparent. In the past, business leadership has been characterised by short-term thinking, prioritising immediate gains over long-term sustainability. To address these acute pitfalls, a new definition of leadership is required — one that incorporates an understanding of the interconnectedness of social, economic, and environmental systems.


Sustainability leaders recognise that they can’t solve challenges alone. They are catalysts for change. They promote and facilitate collaboration among stakeholders to inspire transformative systems change. I offer this new definition of sustainability leadership:

Sustainability leaders mobilise others to make progress on sustainability challenges and thrive.

This definition builds on a variety of leadership theories, especially social, systems, and adaptive leadership. 


The evolution of leadership, from the model of the lone, heroic leader to systems leadership, prioritising social relationships and dynamics, reflects the changing needs and challenges of our time. In the context of sustainability, old-school leadership approaches fall short, emphasising short-term gains and neglecting the interconnectedness of social and environmental systems. Indigenous leadership models, which conceive of leadership in a relational and systemic way, provide valuable insights for addressing sustainability challenges. By embracing systems thinking and cultivating sustainability leadership, we can pave the way toward a more resilient, equitable, and sustainable future.