Characterising leadership for sustainable development

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There are four characteristics that are important for sustainability leadership – not just in theory but in practice too.
When the self-proclaimed radical industrialist Ray Anderson passed away recently, a colossal loss was felt by the whole sustainability profession. Many spoke of the leadership vacuum now present in the field and questioned who might fill his shoes.
At a recent conference, one participant observed that looking for a sustainability leader was the wrong way to approach this and that we were seeking the wrong thing.
The reason given was that leadership for sustainability is not something that can nor should be embodied in a sole heroic individual. Instead it is diffuse, pluralistic, collective, facilitative, and has more feminine attributes. Therefore the true sustainability leaders are, and sustainability leadership more generally is, far more relational, far more inter-subjective and far harder to spot.

Here I want to offer four characteristics of leadership for sustainability that I consider important generically. They are mindfulness, advocacy, holding discomfort and femininity. The caveat is that I will do each of them a disservice in this short note.
Mindfulness (staying aware of and paying close attention to the present moment)

The classic Einstein quote "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them" seems especially relevant to the sustainability challenge. Even the green revolution and green growth strategies of the most progressive organisations do not seem proportional to the task at hand. Part of the reason for this is that our habits of thought and experience cloud our ability to really engage with the present and its future portent. Mindfulness techniques can help us avoid this. They enable us to fully question the status quo and our internal dialogue with it and to achieve better contact with others. In effect we make ourselves open to being changed.
Advocacy (arguing in favour of sustainability)

The ability to advocate a viewpoint that is in line with the broader sustainability agenda is both critical and troublesome. Being overly challenging at the wrong moment risks not being taken seriously, reinforces polarisation and even provokes ridicule. Not being challenging enough risks collusion and can be insufficient to engender change. Leadership for sustainability requires careful attention to one's own advocacy and its true source and an understanding of when and how to deploy it.
Holding discomfort (staying with the difficult stuff for long enough)

Some of the difficult sustainability questions such as dematerialisation, the nature of growth and social usefulness require an ability to facilitate senior individuals whilst they undergo significant discomfort both individually and as a group. In such situations the drive to find quick fixes, dismiss the problem as too difficult, deny it altogether, or even use humour to disperse the tension is highly appealing. Yet by exploring and staying with the discomfort, the chance of a novel solution becomes more possible. Being able to recognise our natural (and masculine) tendency to polarise and problem solve, and to work in the middle is a key requirement of leadership for sustainability.
Femininity (displaying and using characteristically feminine attributes)

Connell cites the most socially endorsed behaviour in organisations is to be masculine and to include characteristics such as aggressiveness, strength, drive, ambition, and self-reliance. If this is so then it raises the question of how these characteristics align with our sustainability ambitions.

To my mind the more characteristically feminine attributes of cooperation, understanding, pluralistic knowing and seeking union align more closely with the sort of work required to develop more sophisticated, encompassing and collaborative efforts. Therefore leadership for sustainability involves displaying and using such attributes with full cognisance of our more masculine organisational habits.

As I mentioned before, these reflections are simply my opinions based on personal experience and, as such, they each require significantly more attention and explanation than given here. Understanding their interrelationship is also important. Nevertheless, I do hope the new Guardian Sustainable Business hub on leadership provides exactly the right forum for such dialogue.

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