Sustainability Corner: Sustainability Leadership – How do you master it?

Chief Sustainability Officer
  • “Sustainability empowers justice, security and ultimately, happiness.”

—–Miguel Reynolds Brandao, Serial Entrepreneur & Business Strategist

What does Sustainability Leadership mean?

Sustainability is a must for leaders, and its importance is rising. But the question persists: What makes a great sustainability leader? Is it in their character, good leadership behaviour, or both, and more? After all, being a sustainability leader can be great for your company’s triple bottom line. It can also boost team performance and significantly impact the environment and the company’s reputation.

So let’s have a closer look at what sustainability leadership means. Sustainability leadership is an influencing process that provides direction, alignment, commitment, and addresses social, environmental and economic issues to create a better world. This definition was inspired by McCauley (2014), Quinn and D’Amato (2008), and Visser and Courtice (2011). It reminds us that leadership is not a position.

Instead, it’s a process of influence that often involves people working together to build a shared vision of change and coordinate their actions. It fosters an individual’s commitment to collective success. It also reminds us that sustainable development leaders seek to achieve value-maximising outcomes through the so-called ‘three bottom lines’ to ensure that future generations have the opportunity to meet their needs.

Sustainability leadership is not a separate division of leadership theory although some efforts have been made to develop ‘ecological leadership theory’ (e.g., Wielkiewicz & Stelzner, 2010).

Instead, it is a context in which we can use a range of established theoretical and conceptual frameworks to understand the leadership challenges better. To further formulate appropriate leadership strategies and identify relevant leadership tools (e.g., tools that describe leadership behaviours we should use).

For example, sustainability leaders frequently tackle complex challenges (also known as complex or adaptive problems), and thus, theory and practical tools have been developed. ‘Adaptive leadership’ (Heifetz and Laurie, 1997; Northouse, 2018) is very relevant in this context.

Leading by example sustainably

Sustainability leadership isn’t an inherent part of a leader’s character but something that their behaviour can define. Hence, that implies that anyone can learn to be a great sustainability leader if they are driven to become one and have a vision. Furthermore, sustainability leaders build trust, motivation and positivity among their employees – and at the end of the day, that’s good for business.

Sustainability leaders cultivate leadership through a mixture of five distinct tenets:

  1. Sustainability leaders often have a worldview characterised by ecological, systemic and long-term significance

Scholars underscored the importance of an ‘ecological (or eco-centric)’ worldview for leaders and sustainability leadership. This worldview emphasises that: humans are part of the global ecosystem, not separate from it; they are intrinsically valuable to nature. Therefore, to minimise our impact on natural systems, we need to think systematically and long-term, and we have a responsibility as stewards of biological systems.

Schein (2015, p.163) encourages emerging sustainability leaders to become aware of their worldview. He argues that: “A better understanding of the ecological worldview leads to a new sense of why and how we act as sustainability leaders. In terms of impact, our worldview powerfully shapes the specific choices and defines the sustainability initiatives to be achieved.

  1. Sustainability leaders often work in a cross-border network of leaders with diverse leadership roles.

Successful sustainability leadership case studies involve complex challenges. Such as promoting more sustainable forms of water management in cities (Brown and Clarke, 2007; Taylor, 2011) and highlighting the importance of an interdisciplinary network of leaders working together over the years to build and deliver a shared vision of change. These advocacy coalitions often include leaders playing different roles.

For example, the network might consist of authoritative leaders with significant positional power (authority), such as executives and politicians. On the other hand, these can be champion-type leaders at the project, executive, and/or political level. They engage in ‘out-of-role behaviours’ to passionately promote new ideas, get people’s attention, challenge the status quo, overcome institutional inertia, take risks, pilot projects and be catalysts for change.

The networking can also involve opinion leaders with high expertise, credibility and autonomy, such as prominent academics and consultants. Some leaders from this perspective can also be trusted advisors who have close relationships with leaders with authority and are therefore able to influence (e.g., political advisors). We also often see adaptive leaders creating space for stakeholders to come together, build a shared understanding of the problem and test solutions (e.g., leaders who establish collaborative research initiatives).

Team leaders are also often present in this network, as different projects are carried out by teams (e.g., pilot projects). In addition, leaders who can communicate across disciplines, organisations, and/or geographies (i.e., leaders who cross boundaries) often play an essential role in building reach. For example, honestly shared vision, coordinated people’s actions, connected people can translate critical messages into forms that resonated with different stakeholder groups.

  1. Sustainability leaders can influence without authority

Blanchard et al., 2013 posit that: “The key to successful leadership is influence, not power.” This is especially true for sustainability leaders due to the need to influence across borders. Leaders often do not have authority over the people or groups they wish to control. To influence without authority, sustainability leaders must create personal forms of power (e.g., a power that comes from trust, relationships, expertise, access to information, and institutional knowledge). They engage strategically on social media to build relationships before they are needed, thoughtfully design campaigns to influence strategies, and use leadership styles appropriate to this context.

Two complementary forms of leadership that are particularly relevant in this context are authentic leadership and transformational leadership (Northouse, 2018). Authentic leadership emphasises acting following one’s goals and values, demonstrating transparency in relationships (e.g., revealing vulnerability when appropriate), honesty and integrity, serving others and putting the group’s needs above their own (George, 2003 and 2015). In addition, authentic leadership builds trust that enables collaboration.

Transformational leadership emphasises the regular use of behaviours that involve modelling the path, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, empowering others to act, and encouraging from the heart. (Kouzes and Posner, 2017). Transformative leadership helps engage colleagues in a shared vision and inspires them to go the extra mile to achieve it.

  1. Sustainability leaders recognise the importance of self-leadership

Promoting sustainability is rarely easy. Often, this involves significant resistance, stakeholder conflict, setbacks and lengthy delays. There is a considerable risk that sustainability leaders will burn out or leave the leadership initiative too soon in this context.

A fundamental principle of leadership development is prioritising autonomy (Blanchard, 2015). Self-leadership involves becoming aware of who we are (e.g., our purposes, values, character traits and strengths). Furthermore, it makes decisions we can see to be at our best (e.g., choosing where we spend our time, work, and leadership behaviours we adopt).

Outstanding sustainability leaders naturally:

  • Have precision about their purpose and values, so they know where they need to spend their time and stay highly motivated.
  • Create or build strong personal networks to develop resilience and grow as leaders.
  • Concentrate on looking after their physical and mental health (e.g., taking short breaks, spending time with family and friends, meditating, etc.)
  • Cultivate frequent reflection habits (e.g., reflecting daily using a journal and a set of reflection questions).
  • Energetically manage their careers, so they work in roles and contexts aligned with their purpose and values, leverage their strengths, and suit their nature.
  • Seek feedback on their performance and behaviours from others to maintain high levels of self-awareness and continually grow as leaders.
  1. Sustainability leaders spend much of their time working across boundaries

Sustainability issues and challenges are generally complex and cross-boundary in nature. In this context, ‘boundary’ can relate to professional discipline, industry sector, level of government, organisational unit, culture, geography, political jurisdiction and demographics. A significant consequence of this leadership context is that sustainability leaders need a general generic knowledge of the issue they address and their institutional environment. The concept of a ‘T-shaped professional’ can be significantly related here (McIntosh and Taylor, 2013), where professionals develop profound knowledge in a small number of areas.

Sustainability leaders also need leadership skills such as engaging with social networks and emotional intelligence (Goleman, 2004). They also need a range of skills in communication, the ability to adapt one’s leadership style to fit in context (Yukl and Mahsud, 2010), and the ability to influence with little or no authority.

Finishing well

While the principles of sustainability leadership explored are not exhaustive, these certainly highlight the most critical aspects of leadership that future sustainability leaders need and must know. Knowledge of these principles will help sustainability leaders understand the context in which they work, and the types of leadership most likely to be effective. Understanding these principles also has practical consequences. Specifically, these principles help inform the mindset, skills and tools we need to develop and thrive as sustainability leaders.

To top it all off, business forecasters believe that workforces will soon be grouped into two distinct groups. On the one hand, you’ll have tech-oriented individuals working with advanced digital technologies. On the other hand, you’ll have sustainable, charismatic, innovative leaders leading the charge to implement changes and ensure company success.


Goleman, D. (2004). What makes a leader? Harvard Business Review, January 2004 (reprint from 1998), 82–91.

McCauley, C. (2014). Making leadership happen. Greensborough, North Carolina: Centre for Creative Leadership.

McIntosh, B., & Taylor, A. (2013). Developing T-shaped water professionals: Building capacity in collaboration, learning, and leadership to drive innovation. Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education, 150, 6–17.

Quinn, L., & D’Amato, A. (2008). Globally responsible leadership. A Centre for Creative Leadership research White Paper. Centre for Creative Leadership: Greensborough, North Carolina.

Schein, S (2015). A new psychology for sustainable leadership: The hidden power of ecological worldviews. Sheffield, United Kingdom: Greenleaf Publishing Ltd.

Wielkiewicz, R., & Stelzner, S. (2010). An ecological perspective on leadership theory, research, and practice. In B. Redekop (Ed.). Leadership for environmental sustainability (pp. 17–35). New York: Routledge.

Yukl, G., & Mahsud, R. (2010). Why flexible and adaptive leadership is essential. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2), 81–93.

Blanchard, K., Zigarmi, P., & Zigarmi, D. (2013). Leadership and the one-minute manager: Increasing effectiveness through situational leadership II. New York: William Morrow.

Blanchard, K. (2015). Ken Blanchard on mastering self-leadership.

Goodwin, D. (2018). Leadership: In Turbulent Times. Simon & Schuster.

Taylor, A. (2020). Six Principles of Sustainability Leadership. International WaterCentre.

About the Writers:

Romein is a (self-confessed) Pan-Africanist by heart. Romein is a multi-disciplinary professional with experience in various sectors. Contact him via ([email protected])

Ebenezer  is a Development Communication Specialist, a Sustainability Enthusiast, Finance & Investment Analyst, and a WriterPreneur. He’s Country Director of PIRON Global Development GmbH, ( and Branch Manager of People Investor AG (

Contact him via ([email protected])  & [email protected])


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