How to be a Sustainability Leader

This article explores why the world needs more sustainability leaders, suggests a definition of sustainability leadership, and outlines a new competency framework for sustainability leadership.

Why the world needs more sustainability leaders

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 changeincreasing social inequalities due to Covid-19, accelerating waste, and predictions of a looming global water crisis. These complex issues can’t be solved by political institutions alone. Pressure on companies to do less harm is coming from multiple stakeholders: societyemployeesinvestors, and regulators.

In the UN’s sustainability stages model, ‘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.

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.

Stockholm Resilience Centre

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.

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

A definition of sustainability leadership

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These outdated notions of leadership aren’t suited to the complexities of sustainability challenges.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 sustainability leadership as ‘mobilising others to make progress on sustainability challenges’.

A sustainability leader’s mindset and skillset

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

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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

And seven leadership capabilities:

  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.

If you want to develop your sustainability leadership, and you’re based in Aotearoa New Zealand, apply for the Sustainability Leadership Programme which I run in collaboration with the Sustainable Business Council.

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