Uncovering the principles of sustainable leadership

Uncovering the principles of sustainable leadership
Jun 28, 2021
4 MIN. READ

Organizations can help reduce their carbon footprint and ensure their longevity through holistic, sustainable leadership.

Sustainability is a key consideration for most organizations today. Companies across the world are paying attention to the biggest challenges of our generation and meeting them head-on—taking notice and taking action. But how are they driving their organizations into a sustainable future? Through sustainable leadership.

To unpack this concept of sustainable leadership, let’s avoid the notion that this is solely related to caring about short-term environmental objectives and solutions at the expense of everything else. We must think of sustainable leaders as enablers for real long-term interconnectivity between people, planet, and profit.

There is a myriad of articles about whether profit or purpose comes first in your organization. The financial viability of any organization is naturally essential, but in practice, sustainable leadership means taking a holistic view of the environmental impact of your organization, your people, and your stakeholders rather than focusing on immediate returns.

Ultimately, sustainable leadership ensures you take the actions necessary to move your organization forward while considering its positive and negative impacts.

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sustainable leadership

We tend to think in terms of a leader’s ability to lead while overlooking context. One thing this model helps us to understand is that when it comes to sustainable leadership, the context in which you operate is just as influential as the personal leadership characteristics you bring with you.

Context can be externally or internally relevant. Externally, you have things like market, political, and ecological factors. However, internal factors, such as organizational reach, governance, culture, and even the people you surround yourself with, also play an important role.

5 principles of sustainable leadership

Taking these factors into consideration, we’ve outlined five basic principles that might help you move forward with sustainable leadership:

  • Stay focused: Leadership is never a precise science. It’s a matter of direction—of knowing where it is you are traveling to and being focused enough on that trajectory so that you’re always working towards it. Sustainable leadership is the same, except that the focus can be more difficult to maintain. New priorities come into play when you are looking at the impact your organization makes in everything it does. So, while precision isn't necessary, it's essential to set goals and targets and not become distracted from that goal.
  • Think holistically: Sustainability is not one-dimensional. It's vital to remember that everything is connected. For instance, a single action within your organization can have a significant impact on the rest of it and beyond. As a sustainable leader, your role is to apply long-term thinking in your search for positive, sustainable chain reactions.
  • Seek out partnerships: Rather than thinking of sustainability as a solo endeavor, think of it as an ensemble of colleagues, partners, suppliers, and community members coming together in different ways to achieve mutual goals. You can't do this alone. That's why it's important to understand the needs and wants of the other players and find opportunities that will unite you in your journey towards transformational change, whether cross-industry or with the public sector.
  • Adapt proactively: As we all know only too well, the unexpected is the one thing we can count on. A large part of sustainable leadership involves being willing and able to alter course when events take you by surprise—whether internal or external. Any kind of successful transformation requires a certain element of flexibility, and the journey towards sustainability is no different. Generating potential scenarios can determine relevant courses of action and prepare you to act swiftly and effectively. This adaptive way of leading inspires trust and ensures psychological safety among those it leads.
  • Be authentic: Skepticism is natural. When something new comes along, people eye it suspiciously and wait to see what happens. So, you’re going to have to be courageous and unafraid to stand out from the crowd while you forge ahead with your “alternative” approach to leadership. Sustainable leadership is a matter of earning trust—and to do that you have to be authentic, honest, and focused. Part of this authenticity is telling the appropriate story of your journey to becoming a more effective and positively impactful organization.

Sustainable leadership is all about leading with your eye on a future in which your organization can exist. Your actions—from empowering colleagues and partners to influencing customers—should ultimately lead to it behaving more sustainably. You’re in the business of setting the right example and thinking beyond financial performance: Concentrate on your goals, think long-term and holistically, surround yourself with the right people, be flexible and, above all, be honest. All of this can help you—and your organization—inspire, thrive, and be more sustainable.

Meet the author
  1. Xander Evangelidis, Managing Consultant, Design Strategy

    Xander works to unearth research-driven design solutions and coordinate human-centered design strategies across both the public and private sectors. View bio

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