In search of sustainable leadership – a series

The lessons of Inner Leadership are an essential step to delivering sustainable leadership. They bring stability, focus, alignment, and competitive advantage.

This series of eight articles explains why and how.

Building a sustainable brand or enterprise can involve many things, ranging from sustainable energy to sustainable supply chains, sustainable packaging, manufacturing, food, electronics, transport, marketing, buildings, textiles, and so on. None of these is important to everyone but all are important to someone. Building a sustainable brand is about identifying the strategic and tactical priorities facing your business today and addressing them using the more sustainable alternatives that are currently emerging into the marketplace.

But is there something missing? Is there something deeper we have forgotten or perhaps not yet seen? Is it enough simply to adopt new technologies and techniques but keep on leading in the same old ways? Or is there a new paradigm for leadership — ‘Sustainable Leadership’ if you will — that is also part of achieving a sustainable brand and can provide us with a shortcut?

This series of articles argues that there is such an emerging style of sustainable leadership and that it offers not only sustainability, but also personal growth, antifragile competitive advantage, and a hyper-sustainable, generative world.


Mapping Sustainability Leadership

Before we can define what sustainable leadership might look like, we need first to understand the ways in which sustainability is already impacting business performance. People use the word ‘sustainability’ to describe a wide range of activities. To understand sustainable leadership let’s first unravel these different elements, then look for the common thread that runs between them.

To do this, we can group together the initiatives most commonly described as ‘sustainability’ into eight themes or categories:

  1. Compliance:
    For some people, sustainability is about complying with legislation or reporting requirements. Usually these are defined by government but some lenders also offer lower interest rates in return for greater reporting transparency around certain issues. Complying with either set of requirements has been called ‘sustainability’.
  2. Efficiency/Cost Reduction:
    Other sustainability initiatives focus on reducing the use of resources such as energy and water, increasing efficiency and cutting costs.
  3. Risk Management:
    One reason resources become more expensive is that they are in short supply. Initiatives to reduce costs can therefore expand to include ensuring continuity of supply. Here, sustainability becomes about managing operational risk. It can also be about managing financial and reputational risk.
  4. People — “Our Greatest Resource”:
    One key resource for many organisations is their people. Sustainability initiatives often improve employee motivation and morale, leading to better hiring and retention rates (reducing HR costs and risk), higher productivity, and greater customer focus.
  5. Extended Supply Chains, Agility, and Learning:
    Not all employees and resources are controlled directly by the firm. When sustainability initiatives extend into management of suppliers and supply chains the outcomes can include reduced cost, risk, and the creation of more integrated approaches. At large scale, these initiatives can also be about increasing organisational agility and learning.
  6. Lifecycle Analysis, New Product Development:
    When sustainability initiatives look downstream, rather than up the value chain, the focus shifts to lifecycle analysis, new product development or innovation, biomimicry, and the ‘race for patents’. Now the focus is on adding value not cost, differentiating the business.
  7. Visionary Leadership:
    For some leaders, sustainability is about pursuing a vision that considers future generations and the environment. Such approaches might include new strategies, business models, or measurement and reward systems. Adding a sustainability perspective to the already-difficult operational and strategic challenges of running a business makes the task more demanding. But managers who are able to rise to these challenges increase the ‘bench strength’ of the organisation’s leadership team.
  8. Transformed Communications/Relationships:
    Sustainability can also be about improving communications, through initiatives such as transparency, governance, ethics, community involvement, and community economic development. In these cases, the focus is no longer on communications for compliance’s sake but to develop deeper relationships with certain stakeholder groups, and so build more robust business models.

These eight types of activity are all very different but all have been called ‘sustainability’. To see how they are connected, we need to map them together. The following diagram provides such a map. It is built around two criteria: focus and scope.

The left side of the picture defines the focus of each activity: on compliance, cost, value, or the identity of the business. The bottom edge shows how the scope of each activity ranges from a single department, to a business unit, supply chain, or the wider business ecosystem of which the business is part.



The resulting map is broad brush but it clearly shows us three things.

First, these apparently very different activities form part of a larger continuum. Sustainability is not defined by any single activity or type of activity. It is an attitude of mind: of how to go about doing the same tasks that any business needs to do. And like any attitude it develops over time. It is a process of becoming. Different activities become appropriate at different stages of development.

Second, we see that broader sustainability programs, such as ‘Circular Economy’, are about delivering a combination of the eight underlying types. The map can help bring clarity and focus to these initiatives.

And third, the overall trend of sustainable leadership runs from ‘doing what others tell us’, through optimizing the cost, risk, and value of our own organisation, towards understanding our role as a part of something bigger and working to optimize that whole. This is more difficult than simply ‘doing what we are told’. But leaders and organisations who achieve it are more capable than those who do not. This is the direction in which the emerging edge of sustainable leadership is pulling us.

This series of eight articles will explore in more detail what this emerging sustainable leadership looks like and where it might take us. It starts by showing how we can use it to bring our organisations antifragile competitive advantage. It then shows how to build such an organisation, first in broad brush and then specific detail. Finally, we will see how sustainable leadership starts within each of us and has the potential to create a hyper-sustainable, generative world.

Originally published by Sustainable Brands.

Photo By Chase Elliott Clark via

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