Sustainability leadership

7 minute read

The Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership (CISL) defines sustainability leadership as: “A sustainability leader is someone who inspires and supports action towards a better world. The Sustainability Leadership Institute defines it as “individuals who are compelled to make a difference by deepening their awareness of themselves in relation to the world around them. In doing so, they adopt new ways of seeing, thinking and interacting that result in innovative, sustainable solutions.”1

Sustainability leadership is not a separate school of leadership, but a manner of leading, a particular blend of skills, within the context of sustainability.   

When we contemplate the scale of the challenges facing the world today, it is evident that we need to drive profound change to tackle them, which requires strong leadership. Real change cannot be achieved by force, leaders need to be able to bring people along on the journey and expose them to the opportunities that are present, rather than focusing on what they might have to sacrifice.

Read: Dr Wayne Visser and Polly Courtice  Sustainability Leadership: Linking Theory and Practice  pg 5 -21, characteristics of sustainability leaders

Key points:

  • The CISL have identified a number of traits, styles, skills and areas of knowledge that embody a sustainability leader:
  • Traits:
    • Caring/ morally driven
    • Systemic/ holistic thinker
    • Enquiring/ open-minded
    • Self-aware/ empathetic
    • Visionary/ courageous
  • Styles:
    • Inclusive
    • Visionary
    • Creative
    • Altruistic
    • Radical
  • Skills:
    • Manage complexity
  • Communicate vision
  • Exercise judgement
  • Challenge and innovate
  • Think long-term
  • Knowledge
    • Global challenges and dilemmas
  • Interdisciplinary connectedness
  • Change dynamics and options
  • Organisational influence and impacts
  • Diverse stakeholder views

    Sustainability leaders typically respond to the challenges and opportunities of sustainability through the following internal and external actions:
  • Internal actions:
    • Informed decisions
    • Strategic direction
    • Management incentives
    • Performance accountability
    • People empowerment
    • Learning and innovation
  • External actions:
    • Cross-sector partnerships
    • Sustainable products and services
    • Sustainability awareness
    • Context transformation
    • Stakeholder transparency

Read: Andre Taylor Six Principles of Sustainability Leadership

Key points:

  • In this context, leadership is not a position, it is a ‘process of influence’ to build a (shared) vision for change
  • ‘Sustainability leadership is a process of influence that delivers direction, alignment and commitment, and aims to address social, environmental and economic issues to create a better world.’
  • Six principles, sustainability leaders ….
    • Have an ecocentric, systemic and long-term world view – an ecocentric (or ecological) world view emphasis that humans are part of a global ecosysyem, nature has intrinsic value and in order to minimise our impact on the environment/ natural systems we need to think systemically and long-term, and we have a long-term stewardship responsibility to the environment.
    • Work in a crossboundary network of leaders playing different leadership roles – overcoming challenges in sustainability often requires cross sectional and cross boundary collaboration to achieve a mutual end goal. Different types of leaders all play a role, such as:
      • Authourising leaders – those with significant power and authority
      • Champion-style leaders – project, executive or political level leaders who can capture people’s attention and drive motivation for change
      • Thought leaders – those with high levels of expert power, credibility, and autonomy
      • Trusted adviser – those with strong relationships and the potential to influence authorising leaders
      • Adaptive leaders – those who create space for stakeholders to come together and build a shared understanding of the issues at end
      • Team leaders – those leading pilot projects and teams to develop solutions
      • Boundary spanning leaders – those who are able to communicate across sectoral, organisational disciplinary and /or geographic boundaries to coordinate people’s actions and translate key messages into forms that resonate with different stakeholder groups.   
    • Spend much of their time working across boundaries – boundaries in this context refer to professional discipline, industry sectors, levels of government, organisational units, culture, geography, political jurisdictions and demographics. As a consequence, leaders need a broad general knowledge of the issue they are addressing, as well as the environment(s) in which they are operating. The concept of a ‘T -shaped professional’ is relevant here – where professionals 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’).
    • Are able to exercise influence without authority – “the key to successful leadership is influence, not authority”. This is a particularly relevant concept where there is a need to exercise influences across boundaries where you may not have any authority over the people of groups you are seeking to influence. Being able to exert influence without authority requires personal power (e.g. that derived from credibility, relationships, expertise, access to information), building relationships before they are needed thoughtful design of influence strategies and use of appropriate leaderships strategies to the context.
      • Authentic leadership places an emphasis on acting in accordance with one’s purpose and values, demonstrating relational transparency, honesty and integrity, serving others, and putting the needs of the group before one’s own needs. This helps build trust which enables collaboration.
      • Transformational leadership emphasises the use of frequent behaviours associated with modelling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, enabling others to act, and encouraging the heart. This helps engage colleagues in a shared vision and inspire them to make the effort to achieve that vision.
    • Are comfortable working with complexity – many challenges in sustainability involve many stakeholders, politics, competing interests, natural systems and ecosystems – there is often a lack of consensus regarding the actual problem, let alone how to address it. Adaptive leadership is required to create places and opportunities for stakeholders to share their understanding of the problem, learn together, innovate, conduct trials and scale up application.

There are six competencies that the author identifies as being key for adaptive leaders’ need to address complex sustainability challenges:          

  • Collaboration
  • Character
  • Continuity of commitment
  • Competence
  • Communication
  • Creativity
    Recognise the importance of leading themselves – self leadership involves building self-awareness of our own nature (purposes, values, personality traits and strengths) and making decision accordingly so that we can perform at our best. Successful leaders typically:
    • Have clarity of purpose
    • Develop strong personal networks
    • Look after their physical and mental health
    • Have frequent reflection habits
    • Actively manage their careers
    • Seek feedback on their performance

1Visser, W. and Courtice, P., n.d. Sustainability Leadership: Linking Theory and Practice. [online] Available at: <>.