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Searching for Sustainability Leadership

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Abstract

Prevailing, mainstream discourses of leadership may be seen as an obstacle to more democratic forms of organisation and deliberation, especially in large global firms and institutions. A significant shift towards more socially useful, responsible, just and sustainable forms of business organisation depends in part on replacing leadership models that foster dependencies and inhibit emergent collective action with a set of practices in which leadership is a positive modality of democracy, rather than democracy-deferring.
Searching for Sustainability Leadership
Jem Bendell and Richard Little
Occasional Paper #1
Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS), University of
Cumbria.
“There are two types of education… One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to
live.”
John Adams (1780)
"Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife."
John Dewey (1916)
Introduction
As people who have worked for some decades to help a fundamental shift in capitalism for a
more sustainable and fair economy, we were somewhat relieved to hear more executives
acknowledge that the current efforts are not enough. According to Accenture and the UN
Global Compact, only a third of CEOs of the world’s 1000 largest firms think that business is
making sufficient efforts to address global sustainability challenges or that the global
economy is on track to meet growing demands for employment and consumption
(Accenture, 2013). Take any major issue, and the innovations at firm level are dwarfed by
data on deteriorating circumstances. For instance, we might be encouraged that solar power
will soon be cheaper than coal, but harrowed by how aggregate carbon emissions rise every
year (IPCC, 2014).
This growing realisation that incremental change might be insignificant change may be one
reason why we now hear calls for more leadership for sustainability (Adams et al, 2011).
One study found over 50 new sustainability leadership courses, in English, around the world:
"colleges and universities are rushing to respond to an increasingly urgent challenge:
developing the next generation of sustainability leaders” (Shriberg and MacDonald, 2013, p
1). The international Academy for Business in Society’s conference in 2014 focused on
‘Leadership for a Sustainable Future’. Hosted at the University of Cambridge’s Institute for
Sustainability Leadership (CISL), the organisers noted that "progress may well depend on
the emergence of political, economic and intellectual leadership far beyond what is currently
in evidence" (ABIS, 2014a). The director of CISL went further, stating “If companies stand
any chance of meaningfully embedding sustainability policies and principles into business
practices and performance, they must invest in integrating sustainability into their
mainstream leadership and management development programmes” (Courtice, 2014).
So the search for sustainability leadership is now on. Where will this leadership come from?
What will it look like? How can we see more of it? Our experience is that people are calling
for more leadership without reflecting on what leadership means, and also, when they do,
too often relying on mainstream management discourses about leadership. This is reflected
in research of sustainability leadership programmes, where their "directors, most of whom
have a sustainability background but not a leadership background, had difficulty answering
the question of how their programs differed from traditional leadership programs." (Shriberg
and MacDonald, 2013, p 12). Our argument is that as educators and researchers in fields
related to sustainability, we should not simply seek to add more sustainability to leadership
or add more leadership to sustainability, but challenge assumptions about “leadership” that
have added to the persistent social and environmental problems we experience today.
In this paper we briefly outline the importance of the field of leadership education, before
defining our focus as leadership behaviours, rather than individual leaders with senior roles.
We understand leadership as a relational, ‘socially constructed’ phenomenon rather than the
result of a stable set of leadership attributes that inhere in ‘leaders’ (Wood, 2005). We will
describe the growth of ‘sustainability leadership’ as a topic in the field of business-society
relations and its associated research community, as well as a topic for increasing numbers
of degree programmes around the world. We will describe some of the major shortcomings
of the approaches to leadership and its development which are currently mainstream within
business schools, and why that is so, before outlining a more critical approach. We conclude
by presenting a couple of the orientations that we aim to cultivate in participants in our
leadership development programmes. In so doing, we hope to inform discussions on the
future development of research, advice and education on sustainability leadership.
Leadership and its Development
Leadership is a subject offered in most business schools worldwide as well as a variety of
management trainers. The focus of these courses is often on personal development to
prepare oneself for greater seniority within an organisation, which makes it attractive to
many students and educators. The popularity of the field is reflected by the University of
Cumbria asking one of your authors in 2012 to found an Institute for Leadership and
Sustainability (IFLAS). The subject has a range of journals dedicated to it, including
Leadership, The Leadership Quarterly and Journal of Leadership Studies, as well as being a
subject often covered in journals like Organisation or Human Relations. Recently, articles
have examined the growing field of leadership development courses offered to executives.
"One estimate cites a $45 billion annual expenditure in the United States alone for
leadership development and a survey of European CEOs found that the majority were
‘extremely’ committed to leadership development" (Gagnon and Collinson, 2014, p. 648).
Mabey and Finch-Lees (2008) found that leadership development programmes comprise a
"potent and high-profile human resources activity, involving some of the organization’s key
players and attracting high investment both in terms of corporate budgets and expectations"
(p. 3).
There are so many definitions of leadership, which makes it hard to pick one, so we will offer
one of our own: Leadership is any behaviour that has the effect of helping groups of people
achieve something that the majority of them are pleased with and which we assess as
significant and what they would not have otherwise achieved. Therefore leadership involves
the ascription of significance to an act by us, the observer, where significance usually
involves our assumptions or propositions about values and theories of change. If our theory
of change is that the CEO has freedom of action and can impose change, then we would
naturally look for leadership to be exhibited at that level. If our values are that profit-
maximising for shareholders in the near term is a good goal, then we would not question a
CEO’s “leadership” if achieving such goals. We should note that these are rather big ‘Ifs’.
In the same way it is us the observer that attributes “leadership” to a behaviour that we
observe, rather than a behaviour having an intrinsic quality that we happen to call
leadership, so it is the same with recognising a “leader.” We might see someone as a
“leader” when we perceive they have done something to help others do useful and
significant things that they would not have done otherwise. But does this mean we are
assuming that “leader” is a stable characteristic of a person? Perhaps something intrinsic to
them? Both leadership and leader are our own narratives about a self, rather than something
real in the world independent of our descriptions. As Gergen (1994) explained well,
“narratives of the self are not personal impulses made social, but social processes realised
on the site of the personal.” The truth about leaders and leadership are not things to be
discovered, but processes of social construction, and reflect our own discourses and
preoccupations at any given time. By virtue of nature, nurture or circumstance, some people
are better suited to certain activities than others, but the labelling of such actions as
leadership and such people as leaders is dependent on what we are choosing to mean by
such terms and choosing to recognise and ignore in any situation.
Sustainability Meets Leadership
The process of social construction in the field of leadership has been a creative one, often
lucrative, with now at least a hundred adjectives added to leadership to describe individual
intentions, the behaviours involved, or the nature of the outcomes. Some of the more
interesting adjectives that have sparked great followings are Servant, Democratic, Authentic,
Situational and Transformational.
Leadership is increasingly prefixed by the word ‘sustainability’. Usually when discussing
sustainability leadership, people focus on the stated goal of the leadership or the outcome,
which relates to varying conceptions of sustainable development, or greater resilience in the
face of environmental disruptions. Less so at present do people focus on the behaviours
during leadership, such as the ethical frameworks involved or the embodied values (was she
wearing an ethically-made suit when she fired the staff?). A definition of sustainability
leadership that builds on the earlier definition of leadership, and encompasses intention, act
and outcome, while delaying disputes on the nature of sustainable development, could be as
follows:
Sustainability leadership is any ethical behaviour that has the intention and effect of helping
groups of people achieve environmental or social outcomes that we assess as significant
and that they would not have otherwise achieved.
Recent analysis of sustainability leadership has listed both traits and competencies that
individual leaders need to exhibit. One of the few academic studies on sustainability
leadership describes a rather large task:
“Leadership for sustainability requires leaders of extraordinary abilities. These are leaders
who can read and predict through complexity, think through complex problems, engage
groups in dynamic adaptive organisational change and have the emotional intelligence to
adaptively engage with their own emotions associated with complex problem solving"
(Metcalf and Benn 2013).
This analysis implies we need more remarkable individuals to turn the tide of
unsustainability. Although this could imply we need lots of clever people to apply themselves
to the problem, such an analysis and can have the opposite effect, of emphasising the role
of exceptional individual leaders at the expense of collective, collaborative and democratic
efforts. Leadership, we would argue, is a necessary function in such efforts, but as an
enabling, distributed form of action.
The University of Cambridge conducted a study of leadership development programmes
from a perspective that analysed them for their implications for greater organisational
sustainability. “Very few of the companies we interviewed had achieved integration of
sustainability into the curriculum design of their formal executive development programmes.
And even in the few instances where this was the case, the inclusion of sustainability tended
to be rather reactive, in the form of bolt-on modules or sessions – the sustainability director
or by an outside speaker – rather than an integrated theme that permeated the whole
development process and reflected the world-view of the company and the top leadership
vision” (Courtice, 2014).
After attending or analysing a number of leadership development courses offered by top
business schools, we have experienced similar limitations, and worse. Most courses are a
mix of content from academics from across disciplines that are available to the course
director, some ‘old males tales’ about insights gained from a high-level career, some
uncritical and rather boring case studies of ‘successful’ CEOs or entrepreneurs, and finally
some group discussions on leadership that draw from the latest popular leadership theories,
without any critical deconstruction of them. After analysing these courses and their
leadership texts, we have come to the view that mainstream corporate and academic
assumptions about leadership are fundamentally flawed and sustainability professionals
should not accept them uncontested. Therefore, for projects that seek to add more
sustainability to leadership development (Rogan and DeCew, 2014) or "identify barriers to
and opportunities for the integration of sustainability into corporate leadership training and
development programmes" (ABIS, 2014b) there is a need to challenge the most basic
assumptions of what leadership is and how it can be developed. Otherwise, a focus on
integrating sustainability into leadership development could create unfounded delusions of
how one can encourage organisational and sectoral change towards social or environmental
goals. We realise these may seem bold statements, and so we will now explain what some
of the failings of mainstream leadership discourses are, and the implications for taking a
different approach.
The Un-Sustainability of Leadership
One of the characteristics of mainstream leadership discussion is an implicit hero-focus.
Most popular literature on leadership and most leadership development addresses
individuals in senior roles, as if only senior leaders exhibit leadership, and as if their
leadership is always a key factor shaping outcomes. Psychological research since the 1980s
has demonstrated that people, across cultures, tend to over-attribute significance to the
actions of senior leaders, when compared to other factors shaping outcomes (Meindl et al,
1985). The researchers concluded that this was evidence that we are susceptible to seeing
“leadership” when it isn’t necessarily there or important - a collectively constructed ‘romantic
discourse’. Their work reflects the ‘false attribution effect’, widely reported by social
psychologists, as people's tendency to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics
to explain someone’s behaviour, rather than considering external factors (Jones and Harris,
1967). Perhaps our particular susceptibility to this effect when considering leadership is
because we are brought up with stories of great leaders shaping history (it is easier to tell
stories that way), and this myth is perpetuated by our business media today. Every business
magazine applauds their heroes. For instance, in 1996, Jeff Skilling was described in
Fortune Magazine article as, “the most intellectually brilliant executive in the natural-gas
business” and received years of praise for his leadership of Enron from that magazine,
before serving time in a Chicago jail for fraud at the company (Brady, 2010).
This over-attribution of importance to a “leader” is an obstacle to our understanding change
towards sustainability, as it can curtail our analysis of why situations exist, and it undermines
the potential of that vast majority without senior roles, as the implication is that they can’t
shape outcomes. The way we over attribute importance to leaders also means we ignore
that leadership is context-dependent rather than a fixed quality and behaviour of an
individual. Our boss may be good at some things in some situations, but leadership can
usefully be thought of as emergent, distributed and episodic, with different people
contributing at different times (Raelin, 2003; Starhawk, 1987). These are reasons why
Gemmil and Oakley (2011) argue “Leadership is a myth that functions to reinforce existing
social beliefs and structures about the necessity of hierarchy and leaders in organizations …
a serious sign of social pathology, a special case of a myth that induces massive learned
helplessness among members of a social system.”
This obsession with a special boss leads to the second approach to leadership analysis that
is important to avoid - the desired traits, or personality characteristics, of a leader. Try an
internet news search for leader traits and the popularity of this approach will be instantly
apparent. Yet it is flawed as most of the traits identified as key for leaders, such as empathy
or self-efficacy, are key for anyone who is remotely capable. In addition, we aren’t fixed
beings but act in different ways in different contexts and change over time. The damaging
consequence of a focus on traits is that it suggests some are born to be the boss of a
hierarchy and need to be selected to do so, rather than consider what forms of hierarchy or
non-hierarchy can elicit the best group behaviours to achieve desired goals.
Another main focus in mainstream leadership development is self-justification, which often
masquerades as self-exploration. The current popularity of ‘Authentic Leadership’ reflects
this approach, where executives are encouraged to seek coherence between their life story
and seeking or holding a senior role in a corporation (George, et al, 2007). The potential
benefits are more self-confidence, appearing more authentic in one’s job, and enhanced
skills of public oratory. Rather than self-exploration, these processes can be characterised
as a process of self-justification, as the exploration of self is framed by the aim of
constructing narratives that explain one’s right to seniority within a corporation – an almost
‘divine’ right to lead. Having participated in such processes, we did not find encouragement
for self-realisations that might undermine one’s ability to work for certain firms, or transform
the basis of one’s self-worth, or challenge one’s assumption of self-efficacy.
This approach ignores insights from critical sociology that shows how our perspectives and
sense of self are shaped by language and discourse, operating through mass media and
various forms of social communication (Fairclough, 1989). Such insights challenge the view
that we can achieve depths of “self-awareness” through only reflecting on our experiences
and feelings without the input of different social theories. If your analysis is that
unsustainability is a product of our existing social norms and economic structures, then
helping each other free ourselves from mainstream delusions about reality and success
must be a starting point for any self-leadership. The practices of “Authentic Leadership”
development are similar to those used in the broader field of “transformational leadership”
where leaders are regarded as charismatic individuals who create change in organisations to
achieve higher purposes (Bass and Steidlmeier, 1999).
We are not arguing that there is no place for authentic or transformational leadership
development. In some cases, particularly for those lacking self-confidence or coming from
disadvantaged communities, there are benefits from developing self-efficacy in typical ways.
However, the focus on heroic leadership, key traits, and self-justification in much leadership
development within business schools arises due to the assumption that captains of industry
must control, rather than liberate, normal people and nature. That is the ‘managerialist’
mindset that identifies “us”, the bosses, as people who need to manage “them”, the unruly
masses, to achieve goals, rather than celebrate and coach our participation in the evolving
multitude of life. It is a mindset descended from the so-called ‘scientific management’ that
emerged in the 1940s and treats staff like mechanical parts (Rost, 1997). It is a mindset that
is causing us to alienate ourselves from nature and each-other, and therefore is a mindset at
the root of unsustainability (Eisenstein, 2013).
Our view is that mainstream leadership concepts and education are flawed due to reflecting
a confluence, in the West, of three great 20th century flows: one, scientific management and
the perfection of panoptic managerialism; second, an addiction to fantasies of individual
potency and a corresponding distrust, notwithstanding democratic rhetoric, of collaborative,
collective forms of deliberation, problem-solving and organisation. The third, the
monetisation of every kind of human activity or exchange in a crudely delineated market that
displaces democratic social choice. In their mingling, the three form a near-impregnable
‘common-sense’, which is often voiced in what Giacalone and Politslo (2013) call
‘econophonic’ language (where financial calculation dominates) and ‘potensiphonic’
language (where the emphasis is on individual power). This voice tells us - with typical
phrases such as “at the end of the day, when push comes to shove, in the real world” – that
without strong leadership, nothing will ever get done. From that perspective “strong”
leadership is assumed to be the opposite of something weak and equivocal that might
involve collective deliberation and argument in the public sphere. With these assumptions
underpinning corporate cultures it is less surprising that psychologists find there to be an
above-average rate of people with psychopathic tendencies in corporate executive roles
(Bendell, 2002).
A search for sustainability leadership and its development can begin by setting aside these
dominant assumptions about strength as well as the idea of the senior leader, to consider
leadership as something shared, an episodic social process for participation in which we can
all become competent. Therefore we do not agree with those who argue for building upon
existing leadership theories like transformational leadership (Shriberg and MacDonald,
2013), unless that is done with a critical perspective and experimental method.
Seeking Sustainability Leadership Along Other Paths
Our arguments on sustainability leadership build upon a range of scholarship that is coming
to be known as ‘Critical Leadership Studies’, which critiques mainstream assumptions, in
society and in academia, of what leadership involves. Such scholarship addresses the social
and political effects of socially constructed notions and practices of leadership, to the
‘romance of leadership’ whereby magical thinking about leaders may infantilise people while
creating a strong illusion of empowerment and to leadership as a gendered practice and to
the development of leadership as ‘identity work’ that shapes people’s sense of their
organisational roles (Birkeland, 1993). By ‘critical leadership’, we do not mean, like Jenkins
(2012), the application systematic logical thought by senior role holders. Rather, we draw
upon the sociological understanding of “critical” as involving the deconstruction of
widespread discourses and assumptions that are maintained by, and perpetuate, certain
power relations (Sutherland et al, 2014).
Fortunately for the development of sustainability leadership, practical implications from
Critical Leadership Studies can be developed and applied in leadership development. In
addition, important examples of different forms of leadership are found in some
environmental organisations (Egri and Herman, 2000), activist communities (Sutherland et
al, 2014), and are exhibited by some senior executives. The late Ray Anderson, when he
was CEO of Interface, exhibited a different approach to sustainability leadership to that
widely taught today. In a gathering organised by Impact International he explained how he
appreciated that the goal of transforming the company towards zero emissions would be
something that all employees would be inspired by when recognising it was about their own
families and communities. He knew that the existing hierarchies and systems would likely
restrict their efforts to achieve that goal. He knew the vision would be compelling and
colleagues would discover how to achieve it, because “we weren’t making carpet tiles any
more, we were transforming industry and commerce.” “Management was likely to be the
biggest obstacle” he said. “It was down to me to make sure that nothing would prevent
people taking this on and using their imaginations” (Anderson, 2007).
There are many other business leaders we can learn from, yet many of the leadership
behaviours that need to be cultivated will be found outside the C-suite and also outside the
corporate sector altogether, in non-profits, social enterprises, cooperatives and activist
networks (Sutherland et al, 2014). For instance, some non-profit environmental leaders have
been found to espouse and practice personal values that are more “ecocentric, open to
change, and self-transcendent” than business managers (Egri and Herman, 2000). Future
research on sustainability leadership and how to develop it, could usefully focus on non-
corporate leadership behaviours and seek to integrate these with general leadership
development.
On the basis of a critical deconstruction of leadership discourses, our assessment of what is
useful for organisational change, and an awareness of the imperatives of wider
sustainability, social justice and personal dignity, we have identified twelve key “orientations”
that we seek to promote amongst participants of our leadership development courses and
coaching. We call them orientations rather than attributes, competencies or capabilities, as
they describe areas for ongoing attention and evolution, rather than achieving a level of
performance. This Occasional Paper is not the place to explore all these orientations, but we
want to describe for you two of them that relate to the limitations of mainstream leadership
that we described above.
Instead of a focus on heroes with great traits, to develop sustainability leadership we can
enhance our understanding of how to develop leaderful groups, where senior role holders
act as hosts not heroes, and enable leadership to emerge from within the group (Raelin,
2003). We call this orientation “group literacy”. It arises from a desire to help a group better
serve a social purpose, understanding why groups malfunction and what forms of
intervention can help them function better.
For this kind of leadership we can gain useful insights from how professional facilitators work
to help groups function well. Some analysis suggests that groups malfunction due to
misunderstandings of, or lack of attention to, either meaning, values or structure (Heron,
1999). Problems in the domain of meaning include a sense of purposelessness, confusion,
with unclear or disputed goals, ‘goal displacement’ untested assumptions, and
misunderstandings. Problems in the domain of values can generate alienation, exclusion,
pessimism, disrespect, cultural misunderstanding, domination or dependency, and
disengagement. Problems in the domain of structure can involve a structure-task mismatch,
role confusion, secrecy, unnecessary bureaucracy, lack of resources, no timelines or
milestones, or too many. Leadership can therefore involve participants in a group noticing
which domain is in need of attention, and stepping up to seek to address that, and then
stepping back when that particular task is done. ‘Group literacy’ requires knowing what good
facilitation is, and helping that function occur within the group, while conscious of the
limitations that arise for one if taking on such a role. Another aspect of this approach is to
encourage assessment of how a group is functioning as an organ of leadership, both of itself
and a wider group of stakeholders. Groups may appear leaderless to some observers but
achieve leadership of themselves and others (Sutherland, et al, 2014).
A second orientation that we seek to cultivate is ‘self-construal’. Instead of processes of self-
exploration being managed towards self-justification, we encourage deeper self-construal
where no outcome is hoped for. As one recent student on the Post Graduate Certificate in
Sustainable Leadership explained to us, her tutors, we offered "an existential provocation
demanding full emotional engagement within a democratic and nurturing community."
Enabling this type of self-exploration involves insights from critical sociology, psychology,
philosophy and spiritual traditions, as well as deep conversations, group work and
experiences in nature. Such exploration must be done responsibly, sensitive to the
participant’s willingness to explore.
The almost required optimism of a sustainability profession seeking favour with mainstream
economic powers can be a barrier to engaging in this form of leadership development,
because it does not provide space to explore insights that might prove difficult to existing
institutions, discourses and income streams. Another barrier to a depth of reflection is the
widespread denial that recent climate science might imply it is too late to avoid abrupt
climate change (Foster, 2014). In our experience, many professionals are wedded to the
idea of progress, and that at personal and collective levels we are ‘moving forward.’ This is
also true with people working on sustainability. Yet being able to allow a sense of despair at
a lack of progress, or any progress as traditionally conceived, is important to allow true self-
exploration that might involve letting go of past assumptions about oneself and society. It is
about moving from a leadership as desperate heroes to divine hosts. We use the word
divine, as ultimately a discussion of leadership becomes one of purpose, which makes it an
issue involving the deepest questions facing us, the meaning of our lives, our species, and
the cosmic plan or comic fluke we call planet Earth.
Despite our criticisms of the assumptions and approaches of ‘authentic leadership’ and
‘transformational leadership’, the focus on self-development within these mainstream
leadership development practices provides an opening for work on the deeper personal
transformations that might enable more leadership for sustainability. In addition, the question
of purpose is now receiving greater attention from leadership scholars, without that purpose
being assumed to be congruent with narrowly defined corporate goals (Kempster, et al
2011). To be useful for sustainability, we believe leadership development needs to avoid the
seductive construction of self-efficacy within an assumed and progressing cultural and
economic system. Instead, educators can to reconnect with the timeless essence of
education as enabling greater freedom (Dewey, 1916), and thus focus on encouraging
students to openly and critically explore notions of self and society. Brazilian teacher Paulo
Freire () wrote that education is either an exercise in domestication or liberation. If as
educators we have come to the understanding that current paradigms of thought in economy
and society are fundamentally inhibiting our ability to live in more sustainable ways, then
education for liberation is key part of developing leadership for sustainability (Bendell, 2014).
The growing backlash against mainstream University courses from some successful
entrepreneurs, such as Peter Thiel (2014), could be due to a lack of both critical and
empowering education at many Universities today. The enterprise-oriented training that he
and other entrepreneurs advocate will be unlikely to enable shifts in consciousness that we
are seeing in participants in our courses and so we see an important and wonderful role for
Universities in years to come if more academics embrace their unique role. To help, we will
continue to document and share the twelve orientations that we seek to promote through our
leadership education, as well as the future results from evaluations of graduate performance,
where participants invite colleagues to anonymously assess them before and after the
course.
Conclusions
In this paper we have critiqued mainstream leadership and leadership development
approaches in the hope of better grounding the emerging field of sustainability leadership.
"Sustainability leadership cannot be taught solely with traditional leadership theory" argue
Shriberg and MacDonald (2013, p18). In this paper, we have gone further, by arguing that
traditional leadership theory is highly problematic to the pursuit of sustainability leadership.
Their study of sustainability leadership programmes found that “this emerging area suffers
from a lack of common frameworks, methods and metrics” (Shriberg and MacDonald, 2013,
p 17). We agree that more learning between practitioners in sustainability leadership
development is important, and our paper contributes in making clear some problems with
existing mainstream approaches to leadership. Without a critical view on leadership, the
emerging area of incorporating sustainability into existing leadership development might
repeat the same mistake that had led to sustainable business efforts being largely ineffectual
in changing the direction of our economies. That mistake was trying to incorporate
sustainability into the mainstream, rather than analysing and transforming those aspects of
the mainstream that are driving mal-development (Bendell and Doyle, 2014).
We hope, with Courtice (2014) of CISL, that "as sustainability becomes more strategic, we
expect mainstream leadership development programmes to change quite radically: to
become more proactive (rather than responsive) and to put the individual’s development into
a much richer global context shaped by social and environmental trends and emerging
norms." However, this should not mean accepting the discourses of leadership that currently
dominate.
After years of educating executives on sustainability leadership, it is our conviction that
neither seeking to add leadership to sustainability practice or more sustainability to
leadership practice is sufficient, because that could reinforce a set of ideas about leadership
that are part of a corporate system that has contributed to social and environmental malaise.
Instead, we can draw upon critical perspectives on leadership to dismantle unhelpful
ideologies of hierarchy and power, and empower far more people to exhibit leadership for
sustainability in many ways and at many levels.
Therefore our search for sustainability leadership must begin with unlearning leadership as
it’s currently assumed and most often taught. Templates for sustainability leadership won’t
be found within the walls of schools focused on corporate elites. Instead, we can widen our
search to include critical sociology, deeper psychological reflection and inspiration from wild
nature. The challenge for professionals in sustainability and corporate responsibility,
therefore, is now to move beyond their existing expertise in social or environmental content,
and explore the fundamentals of leadership and its development from a critical perspective.
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