Leadership for sustainable development

“The hallmarks of tomorrow will be scarcity – of land, water, oil, food and ‘air-space’ for greenhouse gases …  Three lessons are ours to be learnt from the 20th century:

  • leadership matters
  • economic volatility introduces a major risk factor
  • geopolitical rivalries trigger discontinuities more than does technological change

And the greatest of these is leadership… no trend is immutable, and … timely and well informed intervention can decrease the likelihood and severity of negative developments and increase the likelihood of positive ones.”

These words are from a 2008 US National Intelligence Council report that landed on the desk of the then incoming President, Barak Obama.   

Sustainable development in leadership education?

Yet, if the top US security ‘think tank’ considers leadership being the key to tackling the major challenges of the 21st century, where is it being taught?   Certainly not in the major business schools, traditional homes of leadership development.  Some have modules on corporate social/environmental responsibility, but none with the scope and urgency implied by today’s evidence of unsustainability.  Trends may not be immutable, but the longer they are headed in the wrong direction, the harder it is to turn things around, never mind deal with already grave negative consequences. 

Nevertheless, some of the blame for the supply side failure, has to lie with the demand side. Do people in or aiming for leader roles, whether in public or private life, recognise that they need new sets of knowledge and skills to those that have dominated over the last century?   The same question could be put to the organisations campaigning on sustainability. After over 40 years of growth in funds, personnel and activity, how often do they ask themselves if a different sort of leadership might have had better results?

A different kind of leader, leading a different kind of following

Without question, leadership for sustainable development is qualitatively different from conventional leadership.  It is about imagining a better future but not one that is constrained by an organisational or geographical boundary as is most leadership.  It is for something far greater than any individual, his or her organisation, or even family and country; it is for a greater good that embraces all life on Earth, including all humanity and future generations.

Sustainable development in schools

Which, practically speaking, involves a suite of knowledge and skills very different to those traditionally taught.   The start, of course, should be in nursery school, if not at the parental knee, and indeed early education makes a better fist at sustainability awareness and knowledge raising than do upper schools, colleges and universities.  There sub-dividing of subjects and learning and campus activity can be so extreme that courses that combine science, economics, enterprise, people and community (psychology and sociology of), ethics and values, and democracy and institutional governance with personal skill development and experience in the workplace are just not possible at undergraduate level.  Recognising that gap, Forum for the Future was the first to design and launch a post-graduate exemplar in 1996: a Masters in Leadership for Sustainable Development with just such a combination. 

Since then, the evidence of unsustainable development has stimulated others to follow suit – and to establish undergraduate and graduate courses taking a more holistic and practical approach to the knowledge and skills.

Leadership in Corporate Social Responsibility

A tactical deviation by business leaders adopting Corporate Social Responsibility strategies protected rather than revolutionised business as usual.  By concentrating on operational performance instead of innovation in products and services many are now left behind in increasingly ‘green’ and ethically-inclined market-places.   Moreover, despite much debate about their inadequacies, measures of organisational and government success remain predominantly financial. 

New organisational structures in the age of sustainability concern

Nevertheless, the call for ‘sustainability literate’ leadership as described above, is increasing, as is impatience with the barriers that prevent government, business and citizens from either benefiting from it or doing it themselves.  In the USA new laws establishing B-corporations permit social and environmental outcomes as well as financial ones for shareholders, with large corporations, like Unilever, wishing to do the same. www.borporation.net  Austerity measures in countries like Greece, Spain and UK have sparked a plethora of self-organised initiatives and social enterprises, most with sustainability outcomes in mind and including innovative approaches to money. 

There is still a long way to go before leadership educators teach things like the wider application of the principles behind the role women are playing in creating and maintaining peace, http://www.unwomen.org/news-events/in-focus/womens-role-in-peace-and-security/ or how communities design sophisticated governance systems to share scarce resources (as researched by the 2009 winner of the Economic Nobel Prize, Elinor Ostrom)

Leaders need followers

It could be, however, that rapid adoption of sustainable development as a strategic leadership priority could resolve a deepening problem for business and government leaders – rock bottom trust ratings.  Without followers, leaders don’t exist.

January 2013

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Consensus, respect, collaboration, empathy, humour... some of the traits of leadership for sustainable development.
Philipp Nordmeyer

About the author

Sara Parkin's picture

London, UK

Sara Parkin founded Forum for the Future, along with Jonathon Porritt and Paul Ekins (who is currently Professor of Energy and Environment... (Read more)

Sara Parkin | Timeline for 'Leadership for sustainable development'