How To Be A Sustainability Leader

By Andrea Thompson

As we can see in this article series, humanity faces multiple planetary challenges. To address these and ensure our future wellbeing, we need more people to become sustainability leaders. Sustainability leadership is less about the individual, and more about bringing people together to design collective solutions. This approach will need us to develop new skills and abilities.


There are two main reasons why the world needs more sustainability leaders: to respond to the demands to ‘do less harm’ and to lead the transformation to ‘do more good’.

There is an abundance of evidence for the need to ‘do less harm’. Let’s start with a few of the obvious sustainability challenges: the realities of climate change, increasing social inequalities exacerbated due to Covid-19, the accumulation of decades of waste, and predictions of a looming global water crisis. In New Zealand, 2023 brought record rainfall, and Cyclone Gabrielle had devastating impacts, which were blamed on climate change. These complex issues can’t be solved by political institutions alone.

Pressure on companies to do less harm is coming from multiple stakeholders: society, employees, investors, and regulators.

The United Nations has a five stage sustainability model, shown below, in which ‘doing less harm’ only gets us to stages 1 crisis management and 2 compliance. To get beyond these stages, we need to do more good.

Source: United Nations Sustainability Stages

Doing more good’ motivators include the vision of a world in 2050 in which more than 9 billion people can live well, within planetary boundaries. We need more people to lead this transformation.

Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre (2022)

In the UN’s sustainability stages model, ‘doing more good’ gets us to stages 3 to 5. 

  • At stage 3, resource optimisation, companies reduce costs and increase productivity through sustainability gains. 
  • At stage 4, market differentiation, we see sustainability-driven innovation, differentiation and growth. 
  • Stage 5, purpose driven, is the highest stage of sustainability integration — sustainability issues are core to the purpose, vision and brand of the company.

These twin demands to do less harm and do more good mean that organisations are in desperate need of sustainability leaders who can balance short and long-term priorities and create value for all stakeholders.


Sustainability leadership tests common assumptions about who counts as a leader.

Traditional leadership theories (such as the Great Man theory of the 19th century, trait theory of the 1930s to the 1950s, and behaviourism of the 1960s and 1970s) focused on individual leaders being heroes, having certain special characteristics, and having the answers.

These outdated notions of leadership aren’t suited to the complexities of sustainability challenges. No one leader or organisation has the answers. A new model of leadership is required.

I draw inspiration from Ron Heifetz’ definition of leadership as ‘mobilising others to make progress on tough challenges.’

Modified for sustainability, I define a sustainability leadership as:

mobilising others to make progress on sustainability challenges’.


I offer a new framework for sustainability leadership capabilities. The framework is based on extensive research and working with hundreds of sustainability leaders over the years.

Source: Catapult

At the heart of the framework, is having a sustainability mindset, which entails:

  • Recognising our interconnectedness with the earth and other living beings
  • Having a leadership ‘backbone’ of purpose, values and vision
  • Cultivating authentic relationships
  • Being adaptive, practicing reflection, learning, and cultivating resilience

The seven leadership capabilities are:

  1. Systems Thinking: seeing the broader trends and implications; having a long-term horizon.
  2. Diagnosing Sustainability Challenges: using adaptive leadership and systemic approaches.
  3. Collaborating: co-creating change with stakeholders.
  4. Creating Shared Purpose & Vision: facilitating co-creation of shared sustainability purpose and vision.
  5. Co-Designing Sustainability Strategy: designing change strategies and interventions with stakeholders.
  6. Influencing & Storytelling: creating a momentum of change.
  7. Embedding Sustainability: developing a collaborative leadership culture and embedding sustainability practices.

To develop your sustainability leadership in Aotearoa New Zealand, register in the Sustainability Leadership Programme which I run in collaboration with the Sustainable Business Council.