What are the six principles of sustainability leadership?

The six principle framework can be used as a tool for leaders to reflect on their sustainability development. UNSW Business School's Dr André Taylor discusses what it takes and how to grow as an effective sustainability leader.

Sustainability leadership is a process of influence that delivers direction, alignment and commitment aimed at addressing social, environmental and economic issues to create a better world. It reminds us that leadership is not a position – it is a process of influence that involves a group of people working together to build a shared vision of change for collective success. In this context, leaders are likely to need specific skillsets such as systems thinking, creative thinking and facilitation to be effective.

The established theoretical framework for understanding the nature of sustainability leadership and managing growth as a leader is called the "six principles of sustainability leadership". These principles represent all aspects of leadership and have practical outcomes for everyone who aspires to be effective at driving positive change and build healthy communities to reduce our impact on the natural environment. 

The six principles of sustainability leadership are as follows.

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

The significance of an ‘ecocentric (or ecological) worldview’ is to understand that humans are part of a global ecosystem, not separate from it. To minimise our impact on this natural system, leaders need to think systemically for a long-term gain and encourage other emerging leaders to build this awareness into their worldview.

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Leadership is not a position, it is a process of influence involving a group of people working together. Image: Shutterstock

When Paul Polman became CEO of Unilever, an international consumer goods company valued at over 60 billion euros, his ecocentric mindset played a vital role in challenging the status quo as 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 to work only toward the next set of numbers and in doing so enabled better decisions to be made, moving towards a more mature method of dialogue with the investors.

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

Case studies of successful sustainability leadership that work on complex challenges highlight the importance of having a cross-sectoral network of leaders who work together to build a shared vision for change. These networks may include authorising leaders with significant position power (CEOs and politicians) as well as project executives, thought leaders, subject matter experts and trusted advisors.

Sustainability leaders who are able to communicate across all types of sectoral, organisational, disciplinary and/or geographic boundaries play an important role in building a shared vision to achieve change by coordinating action points, creating connections and translating key messages into forms that resonate with different stakeholder groups. When working on complex challenges with leaders from all departments of an organisation, sustainability leaders need to adopt the mindset of creating safe spaces for stakeholders to come together to better understand the nature of the problem, suggest innovative ideas and experiment with possible solutions.

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Sustainability leaders aim to address social, environmental and economic issues to create a better world. Image: Shutterstock

3. Sustainability leaders spend their time working across boundaries.

Sustainability challenges are complex and cross-boundary in nature. Boundaries can relate to either professional discipline, industry sectors, levels of government, organisational units, culture, geography, political jurisdictions and/or different demographics. As a result, sustainability leaders need a broad general knowledge of the issues they are addressing, as well as their institutional environment. I.e. becoming ‘T-shaped professionals’. 

T-shaped 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’). In this context, sustainability leaders need the skills to engage in different forms of social networking, emotional intelligence, a broad range of communication skills and the ability to adapt their own leadership style to suit any situation.

4. Sustainability leaders can exercise influence without authority.

The key to successful leadership is influence, not authority. Sustainability leaders need to exercise their influence across boundaries and large groups of diverse people where they often have no authority. Being able to exert influence without authority requires sustainability leaders to build a form of credible power by strategically engaging in social networking to build this type of relationship before it is needed. 

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Sustainability leaders need a broad and general knowledge of the issues they are seeking to address. Image: Shutterstock

Two complementary forms of leadership that are relevant to this context are authentic and transformational leadership:

  1. Authentic leadership places an emphasis on acting in accordance with a person’s purpose and values, demonstrating relational transparency, honesty and integrity, serving others by putting the needs of the group before their own which builds trust and enables collaboration.
  2. Transformational leadership emphasises the use of frequent behaviours associated with modelling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, encouraging others to engage their colleagues in a shared vision and inspiring them to help deliver the same vision.

5. Sustainability leaders are comfortable working with complexity.

A core skill for leaders is to distinguish between different types of leadership challenges and 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. 

There is rarely a consensus on how to address these problems and sometimes not even a consensus on the nature of the problem. For some complex problems, organisational management can’t rely solely on a technical expert to direct them on how to solve the problem. 

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Sustainability leaders must adapt to their environment and create places and opportunities for all stakeholders. Image: Shutterstock

Instead, they will need sustainability leaders to use adaptive leadership to create places and opportunities for all stakeholders to share their understanding of the problem, learn, innovate, conduct trials, and where such trials are successful, scale up their application.

There are six critical competencies that adaptive leaders need to address complex sustainability challenges. These are: 

  1. Collaboration – bringing together all key stakeholders, including those experiencing the problem, and engage in facilitation, conflict management and negotiation
  2. Character – processing attributes like humility, honesty, empathy, persistence, authenticity, and a propensity to respect, serve and listen to others
  3. Continuity of commitment – having the mindset to see that most complex challenges need to be adaptively managed over long time frames
  4. Competence – adaptive leaders need a growth mindset to help build the knowledge and refine the skills needed to fix the problems at hand
  5. Communication – adaptive leadership requires advanced skills in active listening, storytelling, building a shared vision, facilitation, sense-making, conflict management, and the ability to inspire and persuade others
  6. Creativity – adaptive leaders create spaces for stakeholders to think creatively, engage in innovative ideas and experiment when working on complex challenges
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Sustainability leaders can exercise influence without needing to flex their authority. Image: Shutterstock

6. Sustainability leaders recognise the importance of leading themselves.

Promoting sustainable development is rarely easy. Often it involves significant resistance, stakeholder conflict, setbacks, and long-time frames. There is also 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 of our purpose, values and strengths.

Sustainability leaders who have learnt the importance of first leading themselves have clarity over their own purpose and values and are highly motivated to inspire others to find theirs. They have also developed strong personal networks to build resilience and grow as leaders. They prioritise looking after their physical and mental wellbeing by building in a framework of self-reflective habits to actively manage their careers and assess if their current role aligns with their values and leverages their strengths.

Awareness of these principles should help sustainability leaders to understand the context in which they are working and the forms of leadership that are most likely to be effective. Specifically, these principles help to illuminate the mindsets, skillsets and toolsets we need to grow and thrive as sustainability leaders.

This article was first published by Dr André Taylor, AGSM Adjunct Faculty Member and a Leadership Specialist at International WaterCentre, and has been republished with permission. To learn more on sustainable leadership in an accelerated world, contact Dr Taylor directly. 


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