Green Tiles

Sustainable Leadership

Adding the Sustainability to Sustainable Leadership with our Strategic Advisor and Transformation Consultant, Ian Buckingham

A recent article* by one of our client and academic partners, Newcastle University, sets out what has become the contemporary view of sustainable leadership. Not surprisingly it aligns contemporary leadership practice with environmental and social conscience. It’s a gradual shift that is resulting from mounting social pressure: as the world becomes increasingly aware of the impact businesses have on the triple bottom line, also known as the three P’s – people, planet and profit.


Dr Joanne James, Director of Executive Education and Dr Jenny Davidson, Executive MBA Degree Program Director at Newcastle University Business School set out what sustainable leadership looks like:

Dr Davidson: Sustainable leadership is all about adopting a responsible approach to the way that we lead, stopping to think about the wider impact of our actions on society and the environment. This might mean considering our wider stakeholder group, the natural systems within which we are operating and their limits.


It’s crucial to begin by exploring and understanding how our individual roles might contribute to tackling global challenges such as climate change and gender inequality and in doing so to recognize the value that our individual actions might bring. Responsible leaders are always looking up and out beyond their role, organization and sector.


Dr James: Leadership education for the future of work recognizes that we are working in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous contexts (VUCA). Leadership is not a position or an individual person but a series of practices that enables collaborative action towards a common mission. Continuous learning and collaboration with others is central to these practices. As a result, the educational journey for every individual is unique depending upon their context.


Our aim is to reflect our regional ecosystem within our cohort so that all sectors and business types are represented creating a robust network of regional leaders who can collaborate beyond the boundaries of the program.

This is all very laudable, in and of itself and the sentiments are hard to take issue with. But however much of a priority the environmental agenda is or should be, for us, the Sustainable Leadership discussion is at its most impactful when it transcends even the ethical and environmental considerations that too many hard-wired capitalists may too readily discard as uber-liberalism, in this age of polemical arguments. And, in order to obtain the critical mass that the change movement needs, converts are needed from all sides of the political spectrum. To that end, we see and have always seen sustainability through a wider lens that includes and is rooted in performance. In short, the most sustainable leadership practices are those that deliver bottom line results for key stakeholders, because what gets rewarded gets done.


The term sustainable refers to an act or series of actions that not only can be but actually bear repeating; and nothing succeeds like success. If you take a system’s approach to the people processes, including leadership development, you soon understand that success is the result of a series of inter-connected actions or activities that become self-fulfilling because they reward the efforts of the sponsors and initiators. Viewed in this light, sustainable leadership is leadership practice that is about more than greenwash or the flash in the pan act of conscience, the rare act of charisma or benevolence, the isolated action of an enlightened individual, department, unit or group. It’s the product of a leadership system that is clear, outcomes-focused, measured, evaluated, replicated and which becomes common to such an extent that it becomes a leadership culture. It is, in effect, self-sustaining.

One of the primary contributing factors, in our experience, is the enlightened application of a balanced approach to stakeholder satisfaction based upon the use of a matrix of stakeholder satisfaction indices. If you measure shareholder, customer, employee, community and partner satisfaction simultaneously and manage the balancing act of ensuring that your vision, strategy and plans get buy in from all of those groups, plugging your leaders into the same success criteria, then there’s a fair chance that the choices you make together are going to be good for the community, your colleagues, customers and the environment.


In recent years, we’ve worked with leaders in sectors as varied as heavy industry, utilities and public sector to help develop leadership competencies and evaluation systems that not only embrace environmental considerations and ethics, with values at their core, but which take a multiple-stakeholder satisfaction stance. Gone are the days of driving shareholder value “uber ales”and at the expense of community and employee satisfaction. But the wise CEO doesn’t treat those communities as mutually exclusive either and ensures that their leadership team acts accordingly and has the will and skill to play the balancing act.


So, while this month’s theme is very much concerned with the ethics of leadership, we never lose sight of the truism that the greatest leaders aren’t martyrs. Sustainability focused, future fit leadership is about sustaining the good works and cultivating a self-perpetuating culture in the leader’s wake. And the surest way to ensure longevity is by being successful and earning the right to sustained influence.


It far transcends great PR and glib talk. It isn’t easy but it can be done, it must be done and increasingly, it’s being done and long may this trend continue.

More Thought Pieces

View More