Leadership & Sustainability: A match made on earth

By Samuel McGlennon

The challenges of the present moment are dark and troubling. As a species we've never been capable of greater destruction, of inadvertently tipping the scales against ourselves and our future possibilities. How are we to bring a safer, saner future into being? Where are we to begin? Sam McGlennon shares his thoughts on leadership and sustainability.

Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Leadership is exactly that: a journey into changing yourself.

It doesn’t have a curriculum. It doesn’t come with a map (or scroggin). You cannot possibly predict where you will end up…

…but equally, it doesn’t ask that you already occupy a powerful decision-making position. It doesn’t demand you be an incredible orator, or a math genius (phew!) or the most persuasive human ever.

It just requires you to show up. The bravery we need to solve our planetary and societal challenges will likely come as a minute amount from everyone, not a huge amount from a few.

Crucially, we can draw energy and inspiration from the tense historical moment we live within.

In Otto Scharmer’s trail-blazing work on leadership, he shifts the focus away from the individual and towards the bigger context of which we are a part.

“We are instruments for bringing a new type of reality into being,” he says. In that light, what matters most is our agency to fulfil a larger purpose.

Which begs the obvious question, what kinds of reality are we trying to nourish? And what skills do we have, or can we develop, to be effective agents for a desirable future?

For sustainability advocates, practitioners and innovators, the first is perhaps the easier one to answer! But for the second, we need to turn to the evolving theory and practice of leadership. (Thankfully, it’s come a long way since the authoritarian, ‘with me or against me’ days of past decades.)

Though leadership styles change with the times, the frontiers of leadership often reflect the values emerging in wider society.

Nowadays those values are increasingly collaborative, creative and attuned to the larger contexts within which we live and work. You might have heard it expressed as a move away from the ‘ego’ and towards the ‘eco’. Or even learning to ‘be of service’.

Leaders spend more time listening than they used to, ‘holding the space’ for the best ideas to emerge from those around them.

If this sounds like a brainstorming workshop from central casting, well… you’re probably not too far off.

But what’s all this got to do with sustainability? Everything, of course!

The evolution of leadership practice has rendered it a perfect fit for the problems facing our societies, and their remedies.

And like leadership, sustainability has also been evolving to be of (better) service.

Recent years have seen sustainability begin to infuse other sectors of society, including business and government. Its advocates have learnt to challenge organisations on their own terms, and in their own language(s). Using the trends affecting society and our surroundings as reference points, sustainability has contributed to business thinking about risk, resilience, value, and strategy.

What a combination we can see emerging, then. A philosophy of leadership that emphasises humility, listening and being of service, and a mature sustainability discipline that considers risk and true value and is business ready.

What timing! It’s a combination we should be immensely grateful for, and reach for within our own working lives. A match made right here, on earth.

SBN’s Leadership in Sustainable Business Course starts on 13 September. Find out more here.

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