Becoming a Sustainable Leader

Sustainable leadership focuses on bringing about dramatic changes inside and outside organizations and calls for prospective sustainability leaders to be aware of the various traits, styles, skills and knowledge that he or she should have; the internal and external leadership actions that he or she should be taking; the leadership practices and principles that he or she should be following and disseminating and embedding throughout the organization; and the habits that have come to be associated with effective sustainability leadership.  There is no universal curriculum for becoming a sustainable leader and things like traits, actions and practices will vary depending on the personality and temperament of the leader and the context in which he or she is operating; however, the elements listed below are based on the work of several researchers who have analyzed the training, experiences and practices of sustainability leaders in organizations selected from many countries and sectors.  It is hoped that these elements can provide a foundation for the continuous study and work that is needed in order to become and remain and effective sustainable leader.

  1. Traits
  • Caring and morally-driven
  • Honesty and trustworthiness in actions and relationships (“keep your word”)
  • Systemic holistic thinker
  • Enquiring and open-minded
  • Self-aware and empathetic
  • Visionary, tenacious and courageous
  • Concern for disparities and injustices and commitment to human rights
  • Respect for diversity and different ways of working, cultures and mindsets
  • Passion for sustainability and commitment to a sustainable lifestyle
  1. Styles
  • Inclusive and engaging
  • Collaborative
  • Consensual decision making
  • Empowering and trusting
  • Visionary and creative
  • Altruistic (guiding and helping others with the ultimate goal of improving their wellbeing)
  • Servant (transcending self-interest to serve the needs of others)
  • Radical
  1. Skills
  • Manage complexity and unpredictability
  • Bridge disciplines and sectors
  • Communicate vision
  • Exercise judgement
  • Challenge and innovate
  • Staff and team management
  • Managing diversity in the workplace and socially
  • Think and plan long term
  1. Knowledge
  • Competence in domains relevant to organizational goals and purposes
  • Awareness of ecological, economic, political, cultural and community contexts
  • Global challenges and dilemmas
  • Interdisciplinary connectedness
  • Change dynamics and options
  • Organizational influences and impacts
  • Awareness of stakeholder roles and diverse stakeholder views 
  1. Internal Leadership Actions 
  • Organizational culture and reach
  • Informed decisions
  • Strategic direction
  • Governance structure
  • Role of leadership
  • Management incentives
  • Performance accountability
  • People empowerment
  • Learning and innovation
  1. External Leadership Actions 
  • Cross sector partnerships
  • Sustainable products and service
  • Sustainability awareness
  • Context transformation
  • Stakeholder transparency 
  1. Leadership Practices
  • Commitment to training and staff development programs
  • Proactively striving for amicable labor relations
  • Development of strategies for staff retention
  • Shifting compensation programs toward metrics that valued contributions to customer loyalty and to innovation
  • Promoting environmental and social responsibility
  • Initiating communications with multiple stakeholders and transparently taking into account and balancing their interests
  • Developing and embedding a shared vision for the goals of the business
  1. Habits
  • Taking a long-term perspective in making decisions
  • Fostering systemic innovation aimed at increasing customer value
  • Developing a skilled, loyal and highly engaged workforce
  • Offering quality products, services and solutions
  • Developing and maintaining the trust of organizational members and stakeholders
  • Committing to and engaging in ethical behavior and decision making and establishing ethical values and standards throughout the organization

For additional information, see W. Visser and P. Courtice, Sustainability Leadership: Linking Theory and Practice (Cambridge UK, University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, 2011), 1; G. Avery and H. Bergsteiner, “Sustainable leadership practices for enhancing business resilience and performance”, Strategy and Leadership, 39(3) (2011), 5, 6; and D. Timmer, J. Creech and C. Buckler, Becoming a Sustainability Leader (Winnipeg CN: International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2007), 56, 59.  To learn more about Sustainable Leadership, see the chapter on that subject available as part of “Leadership: A Library of Resources for Sustainable Entrepreneurs”, which is prepared and distributed by the Sustainable Entrepreneurship and available here.

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