This article looks into what differs between sustainability leadership and traditional leadership.

london skyline

There was one quotation that I came across recently that struck me as hitting the nail on the head for what the difference is, and I will post it below.

Sustainability requires leaders to be focussed more externally and it consider the interests of a wider spectrum of stakeholders.

It comes from a study by Bertels in 2010 called Embedding Sustainability in Organizational Culture and you can find a link to that study here.

Good leadership is good leadership, but there are some unique characteristics to sustainability that require a slightly different kind of leadership to ensure success.

Sustainability is different from a traditional business problem that can be solved by management. Sustainability is a wicked problem and so requires fundamental and far reaching change to the structure of most organisations.

Some of the best writing I have come across on the psychology of this is by George Marshall in his book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. Humans survived throughout evolution because we are good at dealing with very real, very dangerous and very immediate threats. Such as running from a lion in the jungle or confronting an intruder in the house. We are not programmed to be good at dealing with long-term threats. I did a review of this book which you can find here.

For a lot of CEOs at public companies their life is lived financial quarter by financial quarter and for a lot of small business owners, they live month by month. This is why those who take a long-term approach are leaders, as they dare to be different.

We should never forget the original 1987 Our Common Future, definition of sustainable development.  Their definition can be found in full below.

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

I wrote a 4 part book review of Our Common Future, and for those who are interested, you can find a link to part 1 here.

For me, sustainability leadership differs from traditional business leadership as sustainability has a prerequisite for long-term thinking.

What you need to know

This article looked into what differs between sustainability leadership and traditional leadership.

We looked into how sustainability leadership requires an external focus and to consider the concerns of stakeholders that have historically been marginalised and ignored.

We looked into how sustainability is a wicked problem and so cookie cutter leadership styles that can be applied to traditional business problems are insufficient.

Sustainability leadership also has a prerequisite for long-term thinking.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or reach out to me on social media. What do you think makes a leader a sustainability leader?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby


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