Sustainability Leadership; some thoughts

The most profitable companies are often not the most profit orientated

Sustainability Leadership has its basis in transformational leadership theory.

Its objectives are relatively simple and in my opinion can be summarised as follows.  It seeks to deliver a new generation of business leaders who:

  • are longer-term thinkers;
  • have a values orientation that shapes their business culture;
  • have more vision;
  • have an inclusive style that engenders trust;
  • have a willingness to innovate and be radical; and
  • who are more persistent, more adaptable and more connected to society & the environment within their worldview

If you wish to set it within a more theoretical concept of leadership, as in its practice it can fall to any employee within an organisation to be a ‘leader’ in sustainability, then:

The principles of sustainability leadership are based in the challenges of responding to an increasingly complex world and the changing ethics of society (sustainability leadership will often shapes and sets out what new ethics emerge and enter into an organisational culture!).

It is based on a sense of purpose to benefit the long-term benefits of a group, organisation or society.

It does not necessarily require ‘accountability’ for those challenges and can be enacted by anyone who chooses to take responsibility for fostering sustainability within their organisation, workplace or social communities.

In organisations, sustainability leadership is not restricted to normal hierarchical processes, as it can involve influencing with/or without control ‘of’ or ‘over’ others. It can be enacted:

  • Top down through organisational divisions or management teams
  • Bottom up through example and advocacy
  • Horizontally across peer groups
  • Randomly if it ensures the right seats at the table to make change happen if a sustainability leader can create opportunities for people to come together, generate solutions & devise solutions to sustainability challenges.
  • ‘leading from the centre’ (organisational wide)
  • Externally through stakeholders, supply chains, etc

It requires an embedded understanding of what it means to be a leader ‘for’ others (‘being the first domino’);

Influencing actions focuses on behaviour changes in culture as well as management processes and systems.

Unlike other traditional business leadership systems and arrangements, sustainability leadership cannot operate outside the holistic or altruistic interconnections that exist between business economics, people and the natural environment.

So what does sustainability in business encompass?

  • Challenging conventional business thinking and practice in business (the VW emissions scandal)
  • A focus on a business’s long term as well as short term strategy
  • Addressing persistent and emergent threats
  • Placing a value on durable solutions
  • Comprehensive business analysis, with recognition of the links & interdependencies that businesses rely on (especially the human & biophysical) and covering all the core issues of business decision-making
  • Embedded in a world of complexity & surprises, it determines which precautionary approaches are necessary
  • It recognises both inviolate limits & endless opportunities for creative innovation
    Sustainability is open ended
  • It is a set of evolving principles to follow, not a state to be achieved – There will always be emerging opportunities, unexpected stresses, shifting customer preferences, uncertainty and surprise.
  • The concept is both universal & context dependent
  • The means and the ends are necessarily inter-twinned

These are contexts within which I seek to operate and practice.

Ross Marshall

Leading Green

















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