Ten ingredients for embedding sustainability into leadership

Ten ingredients for embedding sustainability into leadership


By theguardian.com

About ten years ago I ran an international leadership development program for multinational companies for those with high potential.

What struck me years later was the impact of the programme: about half of the participants left their companies. Why? Did we awaken deep desires that lead to different career choices? Did the programme alienate them from the dominant culture of their company?

These unanswered questions have accompanied me ever since. I talked to a number of the participants years later and discovered that there was indeed a connection between their career turn and the leadership programme.

The training worked with a mix of a dialogic approach, reflection techniques and personal development methods as well as systemic change management – all of it, no doubt, needed in the large companies where the participants worked. They all said they benefitted but it also pushed them to ask or rephrase important questions such as: what is important? Why am I here? Why am I doing this? It opened them to an unknown territory and initiated greater awareness of their true responsibility in the world. Great impact. But not the impact I wanted.

I realised that there was a missing piece in the programme. We stirred up questions of meaning, but we did not show where the opportunities were to get these questions answered. Today, ten years on in the global sustainability discussion and the answer is there – if you want to learn to lead better, place your leadership in the context of sustainability. Sustainability is a leadership task. It creates meaning. It creates a better world. Can we afford to delink leadership development and sustainability purpose? Is it even possible to separate the ‘how’ of leadership from the ‘what for’ and ‘where to’?

If you read a few annual business strategy reports from large corporations you find a collection of the following issues: we need to build on connectivity and collaborate to adapt to volatile markets. We need to innovate effectively across countries in a complex business environment, understand different cultural contexts and make the most out of our diverse workforce. We need to think globally and find quick solutions to local challenges making sure that the learning is distributed fast across the entire company.

Are these business challenges not similar to sustainability challenges? The logical conclusion is that we integrate what belongs together – leadership development and sustainability issues. It would move the planet in the right direction and retain people in their jobs who are searching for meaning in their companies – bringing the agenda forward together. It would also encourage more leaders to do the work that needs to be done anyway – change their organisation towards sustainable business action.

There a few pioneering examples of institutions that focus on sustainability leadership – Transformational Leadership Institute, Youth Leadership Scool, One Planet Leaders, LEAD – but this is not enough. We need to get sustainability centre stage in leadership development. These are my top ten ingredients for future-oriented, high quality leadership programmes that integrate sustainability issues:

1. Show that the global trends are all in one way or another related to sustainability and raise the awareness that sustainability is not only a business opportunity, but the only choice.

2. Help leaders to step into the unknown, go beyond their comfort zone and create business opportunities out of sustainability challenges.

3. Create meaning and open up minds to new questions by fostering reflection and dialogue – accessing one’s own humanity is a prerequisite for leading towards sustainability.

4. Demonstrate practically how collective intelligence works in fast and efficient problem solving.

5. Teach leaders the art of engaging with stakeholders as a cornerstone for successful collaboration while working on real issues leaders are dealing with.

7. Show that complexity is the future normality and teach leaders how to juggle with it successfully rather than fight or reduce it.

7. Offer leaders the experience that innovation is not something allocated to specific people but a competence leaders must both harvest in themselves and foster in others. For this they encourage inventiveness and iterative learning.

8. Foster essential skills for adaptability including seeing change as inevitable and finding ways to partner with it.

9. Illustrate practically how mutual support rather than competition helps perform better.

10. Communicate that personal mental and physical balance are part of sustainability and equip participants with tools to get this back on their agenda regularly.

From all walks of life, from business, civil society, governments and committed individuals, comes a sincere attempt to put the future of humankind and of this planet on the agenda and to keep it there. It is time this trend gets fully taken up and mainstreamed in leadership programs.

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