Environmental Leadership

What is Environmental Leadership?

There is no escaping the fact that responding to climate change (and breaking through the inertia associated with climate change action) is now a global priority for all governments, businesses and organizations.

Our ability to develop and deploy environmental leaders into societal beneficial roles will be a priority in this response.

There are a myriad of environmental leaders out there holding down responsible posts in business, political, and public leadership.  Their roles focusing on a wide spectrum of interests covering environmental policy and management, single issue activism, the regulation of licensed activities and service provision.  It is not the intention of this blog to define WHAT is being led across these various interests, rather to help those who are interested, or with whom I work with, to develop the skills and approaches they can use to Get ‘Green Done’ in their respective roles.

Leadership models have evolved significantly over the last century with no universally accepted definition of what leadership is arising, or what makes a ‘leader’.  Transactional leadership favoured by the Western industrial world over the past 100 years has premised on using resources regardless of social and environmental concerns and often ignoring in its financial appraisal the wider ecosystem services provided by these ‘free’ resources.  However there has been a shift over the last 20 years in the West towards Transformative Leadership models that have a focus on the internal relationships within organisation to produce wealth, the roles or skill sets of leaders as opposed to those held by managers, how ‘power’ or ‘vision’ is enacted and communicated through chains of command, and how leaders operate within governance systems to enhance corporate performance to the overall benefit of the organisation.

This raises an immediate paradox for environmental leadership in business. Whilst they may be employed by an organisation and seek to undertake their tasks to the best of their professional ability, they also perceive and respond to a wider range of externalities that seek to safeguard the wellbeing of society (i.e. climate change), minimise the impacts of business activity on the external receiving environment (i.e. carbon release, resource management, materiality) and act as advocates for an ethical approach in their organisations behaviour that demonstrate a commitment to their preheld values, practices and principles.  This outward focusing aspect of environmental leadership is often forgotten.

With experience comes wisdom, and one of the most startling concepts that many environmental leaders in business come to realise is that socio-environmental issues permeate virtually all boundaries within organisations and business activities, yet it is common for many environmental post holders to hold mid or junior level responsibilities in organisations, often without direct line responsibilities for other staff. In these roles they are expected to influence without any defined authority and lead environmental culture and process change across inter-departmental boundaries, up & down established management chains, and through peers inside and outside their organisation. A transformative challenge few other leaders have placed upon them!

It is acknowledged that any individual can be an environmental leader within an organisation, and many are successful in leading change from within a variety of roles. This paper seeks to focus on those employed against an ‘environmental’ role description with performance expectations in this area.  In these roles it is clear that ‘leadership’ is being exerted from a variety of organisational positions and levels, and often solely by example.  Few other roles in organisational management have such an undefined change management role and are positioned at such a distance from the senior leadership.  In such circumstances, the more traditional transactional command-and-control leadership models that exist — the “I leader, you follow” approach — doesn’t get an environmental advisor, manager or director with environmental accountability very far!

Berry and Gordon stated that leadership, at least in terms of environmental leadership, is not yet sufficiently contained within any accepted theory of leadership for it to provide a reliable basis for thought and action. In their view environmental leaders were more reliant on their past experience, current observation, and individual thinking when undertaking their professional duties.

Perhaps we can agree that at their core environmental leaders, in the absence of professional leadership training have:

  • a central altruism and commitment to environmental beliefs, philosophy and approaches;
  • The desire to utilise their personal capabilities and professional expertise to influence not only organisational and regulatory processes but equally:
    • the values, culture and individual behaviours of a multitude of function holders within an organisation;
    • to define a balance between the economic performance of an organisation with its social and environmental performance;
    • the environmental governance controls on impacts arising from their employers activities currently and in future years; and
    • to protect the interests of external stakeholders and their environments.
  • To achieve these aims through a transformational, holistic and ethical approaches to leadership that fulfils social responsibilities and contributes ultimately to the concept of sustainability.

Environmental leaders who promote environmental sustainability infuse their desire to protect the natural environment into their decision-making and actions.

Becoming an Environmental Leader

A significant proportion of environmental professionals – now in leadership positions or with a portfolio that includes environmental leadership, have developed their career from undergraduate disciplines that focussed on biological sciences, earth sciences or natural resource management.  Few in their initial training received any training in the relationship between leadership and the natural environment, and many have yet to receive any formal leadership training within their organisations.

Thus whilst the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report (2018) identified:

  • Five environmental & social risks within its top 10 risks likely to influence global business stability (Extreme weather, Natural disasters, Failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation, Large-scale involuntary migration and Man-made environmental disasters); and that
  • Eight of the Top 10 business risks were attributable to environmental or social factors (Extreme weather events, Natural disasters, Failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation, Water crises, Food crises, Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, Large-scale involuntary migration, Spread of infectious diseases)

Few of those tasked with addressing these issues in business, government or society are likely to have achieved significant formal leadership training!

Today, the challenge for the environmental professions is how Higher Education, Professional Institutes and business in general is encouraged or retrofitted to provide the leaders we will need to safeguard our collective future.


At Leading Green, our approach to environmental leadership training and consulting encourages our clients to look closely at their own internal leadership strengths.  Helping them adopt an inquisitive state of mind and a toolkit that supporting them in how they lead organisations.