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The Inside View

10 Minutes with George Basile, Arizona State University

Why this long-time teacher believes learning sustainability is like learning a sport or a musical instrument or a language.

This column is about the people of sustainability. What makes them tick? What have they learned that works? What do they do for fun? This time it's George Basile, professor of sustainability at Arizona State University (ASU).

Bob Langert: You’ve been teaching sustainability for a long time, even back in the day when you were with The Natural Step (circa 2000). What have you seen in this evolution of teaching such a new function?

George Basile: I think it’s easier today to teach everybody because there is just more knowledge of the word "sustainability." The field is much richer, and there are more examples of it going on.

Langert: You teach both established business people and new students seeking to get into the sustainability field. Who is easier to teach?

Basile: The students we’re getting at ASU and the School of Sustainability are some of the best students I’ve ever seen in my career. They’re willing to learn. They’re motivated. They come with a great breadth of backgrounds and they really are solution-oriented. They’re looking at how do we build the future we want. That makes them very teachable.

It’s become a lot easier to teach business folks and to work with them, too. They are also motivated and they see bigger market opportunities today. It’s not as hard to make the business case.

On the flip side, they’re definitely more constrained in what is useful "right now" and in the time they have. I’d say overall it’s somewhat easier to teach our new students because it is the focal point of what they’re doing for a while and so they’re "all in," while business folks always have to juggle. Still, the business people bring a ton of experience to the table with them and then can go right out and have immediate impact.

Langert: Since sustainability is a new field, what’s challenging about teaching it versus these other functions, such as science, business and public policy?

Basile: I often say sustainability is written in pencil, at best. Sometimes it’s written in chalk and it’s evolving and it’s big and getting bigger. As a result, one of the biggest things about teaching sustainability is learning how to learn and integrating a growing set of topics that "matter." I have a slide I use in my sustainability and enterprise class, where I list all the topics that we might touch on and are important. The list is enormous. It’s almost more a question of what don’t you need to know.

I often say sustainability is written in pencil, at best. Sometimes it’s written in chalk and it’s evolving and it’s big and getting bigger.

Langert: It almost seems like too much to teach.

Basile: The pioneering aspect is not rhetoric. When you implement sustainability even today, very quickly people find out what it’s like to be a pioneer. You’ll find yourself in new territory.

You’ll find yourself hanging from some sort of metaphorical cliff by one hand and really hoping that you built the networks of people to give you a hand to pull you up. So, the combination of newness and pioneering and scale make it very challenging and also very interesting to teach sustainability.

Langert: What’s the hardest part?

Basile: The applied aspect of sustainability leadership. Learning sustainability is more akin to learning a sport or a musical instrument or a language. Yes, you have to build up knowledge of the game, but then you have to practice it. You have to get out there and do it. It’s actually trying, failing, succeeding, improving that makes you proficient.

Langert: Is there a common theme that comes across as to students' biggest revelation as they go through the program and finish it?

Basile: The big one, interestingly, that popped into my head is empathy. Students often come in with more singular views — who are the "good" guys, who are the "bad" guys — so the biggest revelations come when students begin to apply sustainability frameworks to themselves. They learn that businesses, for example, are full of good people trying to create great lives for themselves and their families, and so students start to build a bond and understanding that goes beyond sustainability. They develop empathy with a very broad group of people. They don’t have to be the smartest person in the room anymore or be right all the time. Not everyone thinks like they do and that’s OK.

The ideas that are obvious to them might actually be incomprehensible to some of the folks that they are working with, and vice versa. So, I think — and as weird as it is or not — I think empathy is one big "a-ha" that students get out of the field of sustainability.

When you implement sustainability even today, very quickly people find out what it’s like to be a pioneer.

Langert: ASU’s School of Sustainability has had more than 1,000 graduates. What is their biggest surprise when they apply sustainability in their organization?

Basile: The "muddle." I tell students that they have to learn to enjoy the muddle and that sustainability is more of a journey than a specific destination.

Langert: What’s the sustainability "muddle"?

Basile: Students come in saying, "Sustainability is the most important thing to me, so that’s what you should spend all your time on," and other people are, "Yeah, no, I don’t think so." This creates a dichotomy for the students. What I call "the muddle" is where you really have to focus on what matters to other people and then figure out how sustainability can be a tool to help them succeed. Applying sustainability as a success platform for others is nonlinear and messy. You have to give yourself permission to see that mess as part of progress.

Langert: Besides muddling, what trait does a sustainability leader most need?

Basile: I think the people who are best at sustainability are humble in that they’re willing to listen. They’re humble in that they’re willing to learn. They’re humble in that they’re willing to accept what success is for other people. Then they are action-oriented. They say, "OK, understanding what matters to you, what do we do, what’s the next step, what’s a small step, what’s a big step — for sustainable success?"

They also hang in there. "I’m not going to give up. I’m coming back." So there’s persistence that goes along with all of this. The combination of humility and action is a very mature trait that you find in the best leaders. It’s something that we try to build into our students as they go and it’s a lifelong learning endeavor.

Langert: What is more important, knowledge or desire?

Basile: Twenty years ago, I was shocked at how many gaps there were in sustainability knowledge, especially where key decisions were being made. There are so many big things going on where knowledge is critical. What does climate change have to do with business? How do we address global inequities? What are sustainable pathways for our ecological commons? What does this all mean for everyday decision making? And the list is growing.

On the other hand, today, if you have the desire then you can go get the knowledge and you can persevere and take action — it’s why we have a school of sustainability here! It’s a big one-two punch. Neither one is sufficient without the other.

Langert: If you were the Wizard of Sustainability and could wave the wand to change one thing about sustainability professionals, what would it be?

Basile: If I could give a people a magic power around sustainability, as unusual as this may sound, it would be the ability to engender trust. Trust is one of the most important factors in folks working together to move toward sustainability.

Yet, I just don’t see it as a focal point in sustainability programs or reporting. Are you measuring whether you’re increasing trust, trusted relationships and trust in decision-making? It’s difficult to measure, but when you have trust, everything becomes possible, and when you don’t have trust, everything is impossible.

Langert: "Compromise" seems like a dirty work in our political world today. Is it a dirty word for sustainability?

Basile: You can set yourself up for a polarizing conversation or a collaborative one. I believe in the collaborative conversation, reframing sustainability as a success platform for better decisions. You get to go from a strictly "compromise" conversation — picking trade-offs between what’s the best of the worst — and move to a "flexible platform" discussion — if we make this investment in where we want to go. And it’s not perfect. I can see how it lets me take another step. By moving to an "investment in success" and "taking flexible steps" mindset, you get yourself out of the trap of the tyranny of perfection where compromise is seen as a bad thing.

Langert: So when should you get stubborn and take a firm stand?

Basile: I think those are some of my hardest times. While I try to work from a position of helping folks succeed from wherever they stand, I am going to bring the best science to bear and work to evolve the vision of success using sustainability as a critical lens. If one has to be the fall guy sometimes to get those dimensions across, so be it.

Langert: If you could teach an online sustainability course to all CEOs, what’s it called and what’s its objective?

Basile: The title would be, "The Most Important Leadership Capacity Your Business Is Missing."

Today, our businesses are full of the best and the brightest engineers, managers, ITC folks, HR, etc. However, a big leadership and innovation gap most businesses have today is finding and developing the best and the brightest who can positively engage a business regarding emerging sustainability issues.

As a result, today’s businesses are often disempowered by the best global science or emerging global realities. That is a bad place to be as a CEO. The course would describe the leadership opportunity to be gained and help CEOs find the right people with the right skills to lean into the table when these new, crazy, giant sustainability issues show up, like biodiversity loss, climate change or global equity questions — and, in turn, help their enterprises become truly successful global organizations. 

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