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What does sustainable leadership look like?

Business is not just business anymore. In a world where problems like climate crisis, poverty, and social inequality still impact us, a leader can't have his eyes covered. Real preoccupation with social, economic, and environmental issues is a must in order to create a better world for everybody.

In the last years, the topic of sustainable leadership started to be present in some companies' strategies and in scientific articles. But what does it mean, more precisely?

Most definitions put sustainable leadership as an important point of influence on the map of world evolution. Thus, sustainable leaders can be seen as:

„individuals who are compelled to make a difference by deepening their awareness of themselves in relation to the world around them. In doing so, they adopt new ways of seeing, thinking and interacting that result in innovative, sustainable solutions.” (The Sustainability Leadership Institute, 2011)

In this role, a sustainable leader's vision should and would be great if they can influence the world towards a better direction. But in this case, don't we put a great burden on their shoulders?

Other definitions regard a more limited influence but don't deny its impact on the world. For example, sustainable leadership means:

„taking a long‐term perspective in making decisions; fostering systemic innovation aimed at increasing customer value; developing a skilled, loyal and highly engaged workforce; and offering quality products, services, and solutions.” (Avery, G.C. and Bergsteiner, H., 2011)

Regarding those two points of view, we want to add that a sustainable leader starts by fostering long-term strategies inside the organization thinking about the people and about the world the organization has an impact on. Thus, the above definitions can combine without seeing sustainable leaders as the only heroes to save our world.

What are the elements of sustainable leadership?

There is no perfect recipe for how to be a sustainable leader. However, there are some characteristics that can outline how this new type of leadership should look like. Today we propose to you two models, one that focuses on the skills and mindsets of the leader, and one that puts the leader in connection with the context.

The first model is also called the 6C Sustainable Leadership model and summarizes three mindsets and three skills that a sustainable leader must have: (Tideman, Arts & Zandee, 2013)

  1. Context. A sustainable leader should have a holistic and system-thinking mindset where one can see the interconnectedness and interdependence between processes, events and actions;

  2. Consciousness. This mindset should foster an awareness of others, authentic filtering of others' mental models, motives, and needs;

  3. Continuity. One of the most specific elements of a sustainable leader is the ability to envision the solutions for today's and tomorrow's problems, to anticipate long-term trends, and to foster a long-term horizon of thinking;

  4. Connectedness. A leader must not sit isolated, a leader must be among people knowing the needs of all stakeholders and should foster collaboration based on virtues like empathy, trust, fairness, and relatedness;

  5. Creativity. To be sustainable means to have creative ideas for solutions and this is also available in leadership. A sustainable leader should develop innovative thinking with a focus on the future by always creating and adjusting;

  6. Collectiveness. This skill brings to the surface this new type of leadership. Sustainable leadership means finding solutions that have an impact at a collective level. It is not sufficient to think only for the ones in your bubble but to foresee the impact for everyone at all levels.

The second model, called The Cambridge Sustainability Leadership Model links context with the individual characteristics of the sustainable leader and one's actions. (Visser & Courtice, 2011) This is a more complex model since the leader must act within the internal and external conditions of the environment by putting at stake the individual's characteristics such as traits, leadership style, skills and knowledge in order to take internal and external actions that have an impact at a collective level.

Below you find the complete scheme of how these factors interact:

The definitions and characteristics of sustainable leadership do not rely only on the viewpoints of the leaders but recognize the disruptive changes that occur in the environment we live in. The two models above are just a starting point for a conversation we want to invite you to:

How is sustainable leadership implemented in your company?

You can share some thoughts in the comments below.



Avery, G.C. and Bergsteiner, H. (2011), "Sustainable leadership practices for enhancing business resilience and performance", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 39 No. 3, pp. 5-15.

The Sustainability Leadership Institute, 2011

Tideman, S. G., Arts, M. C., & Zandee, D. P. (2013). Sustainable leadership: Towards a workable definition. Journal of Corporate Citizenship, (49), 17-33.

Visser, W., & Courtice, P. (2011). Sustainability leadership: Linking theory and practice. Available at SSRN 1947221.

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