Sustainability leadership in an organisation can seem like a lonely journey — but it doesn’t have to be. We turn the traditional view of leadership on its head, and bust the myth of heroic leadership within the sustainability sphere.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY & SUSTAINABILITY LEADERSHIP
At times it seems like we can be overloaded with alarming news and statistics to do with climate change. For example, August 2nd 2023 was Earth Overshoot Day, the date when we exceeded the Earth’s resource limit for the year. For the rest of the year, we are using more natural resources than the earth can regenerate.
Source: Earth Overshoot Day
This kind of information commonly invokes one of two reactions:
- Some of us feel the call to be heroes, who are inspired to take action and save the day.
- Others of us throw our hands up and surrender.
These reactions can push us towards the heroic narrative. Defined by Joseph Campbell’s framework of the hero’s journey, a single individual is inspired to embark on a transformative journey. Just like the heroes of ancient myths, everyday sustainability leaders embark on a transformative journey, facing trials and triumphs as they strive to create a more sustainable world. However, when it comes to sustainability leadership, we must recognise that ‘heroic leadership’ is not always the best way to bring about transformative change.
The basic form of the Hero’s Journey is in three parts: the departure, the initiation and the return.
In this act, the hero’s journey begins with a call to adventure — an inner whisper that nudges them towards a higher purpose.
For everyday sustainability leaders, this call arises when they realise the urgent need to protect our planet and secure a sustainable future for generations to come. Just like the heroes of myths who may ‘refuse the call’ to adventure, they may question their ability to make a difference, or fear the challenges that lie ahead.
Having accepted the call to adventure, our hero leaves the comfort of home to embark on the journey, encountering pitfalls and triumphs along the way. The hero experiences a literal, or metaphorical, death and rebirth.
The journey of challenging the status quo for the betterment of society and the environment will inevitably bring up many challenges along the way — including meeting with resistance and scepticism. Everyday sustainability leaders undergo a profound personal and professional transformation, acquiring the mindset and skills necessary to influence others, and the ability to transform systems to effect real and enduring change.
The final part of the hero’s journey involves the hero returning home from their transformative journey, bringing back riches and wisdom gained along the way.
Sustainability leaders return, not with a mythical goblet or magical ring, but rather with wisdom, insights, and relationships gained along the way — equipped to bring positive change to their organisations and the wider community. They then embrace the next cycle of the journey.
THE PITFALLS OF HEROIC LEADERSHIP IN SUSTAINABILITY
Leaders Like You by Nick Sceats & Andrea Thompson
New Zealand leaders we interviewed for our book Leaders Like You, sustainability practitioners I work with on the Sustainability Leadership Programme, and researchers have identified many drawbacks of heroic leadership in sustainability.
- Lone Ranger Syndrome. The tendency in heroic leadership to rely on the efforts of a single, exceptional individual, can lead to a lack of empowerment and participation from others.
- Unrealistic Expectations and Burnout. Practitioners say that the burden of heroic leadership can lead to burnout and overwhelm, as the weight of responsibility falls solely on the shoulders of one individual. This insight is supported by research.
- Lack of Diversity and Inclusivity and Overlooking Contributions. The heroic narrative often perpetuates the idea of a singular hero, typically representing a specific demographic or perspective. Researchers have found that this narrative often leads to the exclusion of diverse voices and unique innovations and solutions that they could offer.
- Lack of Resilience and Adaptability. Heroic leaders may struggle to adapt their approaches to new circumstances, due to their rigid adherence to a predefined image.
- Erosion of Trust and Collaboration. Heroic leadership creates unhelpful power dynamics that erode trust and stifle collaboration.
- Succession and Continuity Challenges. A key issue with heroic leadership is the lack of succession planning and potential disruption when the leader departs. Focusing solely on an individual leader’s heroics can jeopardise the longevity of initiatives.
MOBILISING OTHERS: THE KEY CHALLENGE FOR SUSTAINABILITY LEADERS
The true challenge for sustainability leaders lies in mobilising others to take action on sustainability challenges. This is because sustainability challenges are too complex for any one individual or organisation to solve alone. Collaboration is key. Rather than being the sole hero, leaders must become catalysts for change — inspiring and empowering a network of sustainability champions, who are motivated to achieve sustainability goals by working together.