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Leading for Sustainability

Leadership is today – and, arguably, has been for millennia - a prominent topic on the minds of many humans.

About 2,500 or so years ago, the topic of leadership was addressed (interpretations depending…) in Plato’s Apology and in his Crito. In the Apology, Plato writes of Socrates defending himself in front of the men of Athens (the then City-State’s leaders) against charges brought against him. In the Crito, Plato writes that Socrates was given a chance to clandestinely flee away in to exile from the death sentence given to him by Athen’s leaders, but that Socrates purposely chose against fleeing; based on what might also be considered as leadership principles.

In a world that is realising ever-increasing environmental degradation, growing social inequity and its consequences (which can only deepen during the current global financial crisis, which is now being termed by many media commentators as the worst such crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s), and a global economic implosion coming after years of so many of our human societies and their organisations choosing to live (un)sustainably… a new type of human leader is, indeed, now required.

The new type of “Sustainability Leader” that human societies require is not an old-style, MBA- or business- or legal- degree holding, type of individual who simply ‘includes’ optical environmental and social considerations in what is otherwise a business approach to planning. Nor is the new style of “Sustainability Leader” a traditional politician who makes political trade-offs as a means to acquire and retain political office and its many advantages. Nor is it the type of environmental activist who has arisen since the 1960s: a person who fights for things-environmental, yet seems to do so at the expense of all else.

To return to Socrates and Plato, a “Sustainability Leader” might be more akin to a “Philosopher King”. These are those humans who are found in all walks of life (and who are not always formally educated). They are recognised as being the best and brightest of our societies (and so are endowed with some degrees of knowledge and wisdom, which would rationally seem as essential requirements to good decision-making). “Philosopher Kings” are also persons who are honestly and sincerely reluctant to accept political office (thus making them better suited for politics, for they are not persons who are actively seeking power but are individuals “uplifted” in to political service for the good of their society).

What, then, might be some of the “Traits of a Sustainability Leader”?

Consider that a “Sustainability Leader”, whether she or he, might be a person who…

…. is able to balance each of the competing social, environmental and economic parts of Sustainable Development;

… tries to comprehend the collective whole through understanding its individual parts;

… is comfortable in “Leading from Behind”. That is, they are individuals who realise that “best outcomes” come not from any one person (and even then, often from that one person’s own ego-driven needs), but from finding ways and strategies for any and all interested people to offer and achieve their best for Sustainable Development;

… has the ability to reach across any perceived political, gender, orientation, racial, cultural, educational, social, economic, regional, national or any other imaginable divides, all in an effort to help human societies and their diversity to develop mutual understandings. Then, they are able to reach a societal consensus toward action based on those same agreed mutual-understandings. (Thus, a “Sustainability Leader” is not a person who “tells” people “what” to think or do, but is an individual who discerns differing points of view and then, through reference to human knowledge and access to their own acquired internal wisdom, finds the commonality that unites differences and helps motivate action.)

With the assistance of learners who have now used these over years, I have developed the following Principles of Sustainable Development Leadership, for consideration when thinking of “Leaders for Sustainability”:

Principles of Sustainable Development Leadership

(Thomas C. Esakin: 11 November 2008; revised January and September 2012)

A “Sustainability Leader”:

Is grounded in an inherent respect for all ;

Has an awareness that learning about the collective whole through individual parts is an essential part of “Leading for Sustainability”;

Recognises that each and every person, no matter their station in life, has valuable knowledge to share related to the advancement of Sustainable Development;

Understands that every human being is both a student and a teacher of life , thus a “Sustainability Leader” does not accept any false separation between teacher & student;

Identifies each and every person as a leader in their own right , an affirmation which recognises that all of humanity can - even must - contribute to the advancement of Sustainable Development on Earth;

Is an active listener , for they intuitively know that they can learn more by listening to others then they can ever learn through hearing their own voice;

Actively seeks or facilitates other peoples' participation in discussions on Sustainable Development/Sustainability , for they understand that the more people who join together in learning, then the more humans can, both individually and collectively, be active learners for Sustainable Development;

Considers all ideas to have value, and so listens to and acknowledges all ideas as such, and does so while also accepting ideas in reference to and by building on previous knowledge; and

Realises ideas of right and wrong as constructs of thought , which may often have personal or cultural value but may not have universal meaning or applicability.

Importantly for Sustainable Development, modern leadership theory says that leaders are made, not born.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., in his book The Powers to Lead (Nye, Joseph S. Jr.. 2008. The Powers to Lead. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.), states that in the making of a leader: “Context is often more important than traits” (page 15). Nye also details that: “We can think of leadership as a process with three key components: leaders, followers, and contexts” (page 21).

Within each of us is the ability to be a “Leader for Sustainability”. Each of us as a human being only needs to acknowledge our own leadership potential, to then act on that same inner potential for the advancement of Sustainable Development.

I know you are up to the “Leading for Sustainability” challenge!

(Click on this link to take you to a PowerPoint Presentation, one which I developed for a workshop I give on “Leading for Sustainability”.)