Sustainability leadership is a process of influence that delivers direction, alignment and commitment in order to addressing social, environmental and economic issues and create a better world. This definition reminds us that leadership is not a position - it is a process of influence that involves a group of people working together to build and achieve a shared vision for change. In this article we explore the mindsets, skill sets and toolsets that leaders typically need to operate in this context.

This article presents a conceptual framework for understanding the nature of sustainability leadership and managing our growth as a sustainability leaders. The framework is called the Six Principles of Sustainability Leadership. Although these principles are not unique to sustainability leadership, they are central to most case studies involving leadership to promote sustainable development. As such, understanding and applying these principles represents a developmental opportunity for anyone who aspires to be more effective at driving positive change to build healthy communities and reduce our impact on the natural environment.

The Six Principles of Sustainability Leadership

1. Sustainability leaders have a worldview that is characterised by being ecocentric, systemic and long-term.

Sustainability leaders with an ‘ecocentric (or ecological) worldview’ perceive that humans are part of a global ecosystem, not separate from it. In addition, such leaders typically think systemically, and take a long-term perspective.

When Paul Polman became CEO of Unilever, an international consumer goods company valued at over 60 billion euros, his ecocentric mindset played a significant role in challenging the status quo with respect to the frequency of corporate reporting. Despite considerable resistance, Polman stopped quarterly reporting to Unilever’s investors, as he believed it encouraged short-term thinking and decision-making. He wanted to remove the temptation for the company to work only toward the next set of numbers and in doing so enabled better decisions to be made, more sustainable outcomes, and a more mature dialogue with investors.

2. Sustainability leaders work in cross-boundary networks consisting of leaders playing different leadership roles.

Case studies of successful sustainability leadership to address complex challenges frequently highlight the importance of having a cross-sectoral network of leaders who work together to build and deliver a shared vision for change. These networks often include authorising leaders with significant position power (CEOs and politicians) as well as project team leaders, thought leaders, boundary spanning leaders, champion-type leaders who initiate new ideas, trusted advisors, and ‘adaptive leaders’ who create safe spaces for experimentation.

To apply this principle, sustainability leaders must recognise that leadership in this context is a ‘team sport’ with all roles being important even although some leaders may be more visible such as champion-type leaders and leaders with authority. Savvy sustainability leaders prioritise and invest the time needed to strategically create and nurture these relationships.

3. Sustainability leaders spend their time working across boundaries.

Most sustainability challenges, such as managing the adverse impacts of climate change, are complex and cross-boundary in nature. Such boundaries may relate to professional discipline, industry sectors, levels of government, organisational units, tiers of management, culture, geography and/or demographics. As a result, sustainability leaders need an excellent general knowledge of the issues they are addressing, a very good understanding of their institutional environment, and the ability to communicate effectively with a wide range of stakeholders.

The concept of ‘T-shaped professional’ is relevant to and valuable in this context. Such professionals are leaders that develop both deep knowledge in a small number of areas (represented by the vertical bar in the ‘T’) and broad general knowledge (represented by the horizontal bar in the ‘T’). Sustainability leaders who grow as T-shaped professionals have greater capacity to work across boundaries and collaborate with a diverse group of colleagues to address complex challenges.

4. Sustainability leaders can exercise influence without authority.

Sustainability leaders often need to influence a broad range of people who are located across boundaries with little or no authority (i.e. position power). To do this, sustainability leaders first need to ethically cultivate forms of personal power such as expertise, relationships, access to information, credibility and institutional knowledge. They also need the ability to design and execute influence attempts, proactively engage in thoughtful social networking, and communicate clearly and persuasively.

Two complementary forms of leadership that are relevant and valuable when leading across boundaries are authentic and transformational leadership.

  • Authentic leadership places an emphasis on acting in accordance with a person’s purpose and values, demonstrating relational transparency, honesty and integrity, and serving others by putting the needs of the group before their own. This style of leadership builds trust which fosters collaboration, strengthens relationships, and increases the leader’s capacity for influence.
  • Transformational leadership emphasises the frequent use of a set of behaviours to elicit extra effort from colleagues. These behaviours involve modelling the way (e.g. acting in accordance with shared values), inspiring a shared vision (e.g. speaking with enthusiasm about the future), challenging the process (e.g. encouraging experimentation), enabling others to act (e.g. giving people choices in the way they do their work), and encouraging the heart (e.g. celebrating successes as a team).

5. Sustainability leaders are comfortable working with complexity.

A core skill for leaders is to distinguish between different types of leadership challenge (e.g. simple, complicated/technical, complex/adaptive or chaotic/crisis ) and then choose appropriate leadership styles to address them. Sustainability leaders spend most of their time working on complex problems that involve many stakeholders, politics, competing interests, natural systems and ecosystems. In this context, there is rarely a consensus on how to address the problem and sometimes not even a consensus on the nature of the problem.

For complex problems, sustainability leaders can’t rely solely on technical experts to direct them how to solve the problem. Instead, the adaptive leadership style is needed to create safe places and opportunities for stakeholders to share their understanding of the problem, innovate, experiment (e.g. conduct trials), and where such trials are successful, scale up their application.

6. Sustainability leaders recognise the importance of leading themselves.

Promoting sustainable development is rarely easy. Often it involves significant resistance, stakeholder conflict, setbacks, complexity, and long-time frames. Consequently, there is a significant risk of sustainability leaders ‘burning out’ or leaving a leadership initiative too early. A key principle of leadership development is to prioritise self-leadership by building self-awareness (e.g. understanding one’s purpose, values, strengths, mindset and preferred leadership roles), frequently reflecting (e.g. to quickly learn from setbacks and apply new knowledge), and self-regulating (e.g. choosing to set aside time to maintain physical and mental health).

Sustainability leaders who have learnt the importance of first leading themselves in order to lead others have clarity over their own purpose and values and ensure the work they do is closely aligned to their purpose, values and strengths. They also cultivate personal networks to help them gain perspective, build resilience and grow as leaders. They manage their time carefully and prioritise looking after their physical and mental wellbeing, managing their careers and professional development, and frequently reflecting to learn from experience and build confidence.

The six principles of sustainability leadership framework is a tool for sustainability leaders to reflect on their leadership context, the forms of leadership that are most likely to be effective, and the mindsets, skill sets and toolsets that are needed to grow and thrive as sustainability leaders.

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This article was first published in a longer form by Dr André Taylor, AGSM Adjunct Faculty Member and Leadership Specialist at the International WaterCentre, and has been republished with permission: