Environmental Leadership

The need for 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. The global ability to develop and deploy environmental leaders into societal beneficial roles must now be a priority in our response.

There are a myriad of environmental leaders out there holding down responsible posts in business, political, and public leadership.  In their work they focus on a wide variety of issues 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 in Environmental Leadership, or those individuals who I work with, to develop the skills and approaches they can use to Get ‘Green Done’ in their respective roles.

What is Environmental Leadership

The concept of ‘Leadership’ and a wide variety of models have evolved over the last century to guide our thinking. In reality, there is no universally accepted definition of what leadership is, or what makes a ‘leader’, but there is a recognition that some of the older leadership styles need adaptation to face tomorrow’s climatic and environmental realities.

Traditional business models and the organisational leadership that has arisen around such models have evolved with a bias that firstly, natural resources are limitless and secondly, that Business behaviours were separate from environmental and social concerns. This has given rise to a long catalogue of environmental disasters, the pollution of ecosystems and examples of social harm through industrial activities. The risk has been that businesses are encouraged to view the exploitation of natural resources and their eco-systems as free commodities for exploitation.  Slowly, as unintended consequences of industrial activity have arisen there has been a transformative shift towards more responsible management behaviours as societal opinions have determined what is unacceptable business behaviour in the pursuit of growth and profit.

This raises an interesting question for business regarding environmental leadership. In most companies ‘leaders’ are employed to lead only on internal issues that arise within the day to day running of organisations. Environmental professionals and executives with environmental accountabilities are employed to manage these organisational elements internally. However, it is clear that to be an environmental leader you must possess not only an internal focus on matters such as waste, pollution, resource management and efficiency, but also an external focus perceive and respond to a wide range of factors which safeguard the rights and safety of other communities and the environments they inhabit. Holding the organisation responsible in part or entirely for these factors, citing an ethical responsibility to safeguard the wellbeing of others. This outward focusing aspect of environmental leadership is often forgotten when it is being compared with other leadership models. .

Leadership experience

With experience comes wisdom. How do you gain experience? often through repeated lack of experience! One of the most startling concepts of environmental leadership, and one that many experienced environmental leaders come to realise, is that environmental and social issues permeate virtually all area boundaries within an organisation and its business activities. These often comprise the intangible factors in business management,

what are the intangible factors

Businesses often own a variety of physical assets, such as buildings, machinery, computers and equipment. These things are tangible — they can be touched or seen. They also operate and are aligned along established pathways – Production, Marketing, Finance, IT or Transport. These groups tend to operate in a similar manner across all business sectors. These roles are tangible in that they have established goals and roles, that are accepted and common to most organisational frameworks

Companies also own a variety of assets that cannot be touched or seen; these are intangible assets, such as goodwill (employee or customer), patents, trademarks, copyrights and more. They also have undefined activities, responsibilities and services that merge between business units or are external to the organisation. Ill-defined in nature or emerging they can have a critical impact on business success ands future growth.

Key Intangible Asset groups

To help simplify matters, these asset groups can be summarised between three common types

  • Human capital  – the value driven by the accumulated skills, knowledge and experience of a business’s employees
  • Relationship capital – the value tied up in positive relationships between an organisation and its employees, suppliers, partners and customers
  • Brand capital – the value realised through consistent visual and verbal communications, and idiosyncratic corporate behaviours

Collectively these intangible asset groups can now comprise the majority share of corporate value. Despite their impact on value intangible assets are not widely understood or well managed by many leadership teams. Equally important in todays business world – many of these intangible parameters have an environmental or social (sustainability) origin! The lack of ‘ownership’ and environmental leadership within many organisation of these assets means that they are often ignored as risks.

Environmental Leadership – The Management of Tangible and Intangible Value

It is still common for many environmental management posts to be set at mid or junior level responsibilities with organisations. Many operate as sole traders without any direct line responsibilities for other staff. In these roles the post holders are expected to influence without any defined authority, set the environmental culture and process organisational change across departmental boundaries. The expectation is that they exert influence up & down and across established management power chains, and through peer-to-peer contacts inside and outside their organisation.

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.

The Personal Values required in Environmental Leadership

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 business management 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 attended leadership training courses or have achieved significant formal business management training!

Today, the challenge for the environmental professions is how Higher Education, Professional Institutes and business in general can be encouraged or retrofitted to provide the Environmental 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.

We provide a wide variety of business leadership training in sustainability and environmental management issues.