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Purpose and People

4 ways to become a conscious leader in sustainability

The crux of conscious leadership is acting for the good of people and the planet. 

Blue paper boat leading a fleet of small white boats with compass icon on wooden table

Source: Shutterstock/Philip Steury Photography

"A conscious leader is someone who understands their role in creating a world that works for everyone and takes action to make it happen."
— Gabrielle Bernstein

Conscious leadership connects many of the most inspiring changemakers. 

There’s former Unilever CEO and Dutch businessman Paul Polman, who prioritized social and environmental responsibility at the consumer goods giant, resolutely carving out a path for the good of the planet rather than solely commercial gain. 

Former New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, now trustee of the Earthshot Prize, called the climate crisis a matter of "life or death" as she laid out an ambitious but controversial "green" roadmap for the country. 

And Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres artfully negotiated the Paris climate accord while navigating turmoil in her personal life. 

Each of these leaders embodied their values, acted with courage and prioritized empathy and humility over personal plaudits — three core components of a conscious leader. 

You can break these components down much further, of course. In fact, according to U.S. consultancy Conscious Leadership Group, 15 commitments are required to become a conscious leader, including candor, curiosity and responsibility. 

However you define it, the crux of conscious leadership is acting for the good of people and the planet. 

Here are four ways to become a more conscious leader. 

1. Start at home

Take the time to embed routines and rituals into your day that get you in the right mindset before you even reach the office, recommended Holley Chant, CSO at regenerative tourism company Salva, while speaking in February at an Impact Leaders Lab event, a private platform in which sustainability professionals can accelerate their professional development. "You’ve got to get up every morning and clean your slate." For Chant that means fitness, meditation and ice baths. Seek out connection as part of these rituals, too. "The work that we're meant to do as sustainability leaders doesn't just happen when we're at work with our ESG hat on. It’s also our work as humans, in the way we show up in our community, how we help both ourselves and other people to deal with the ups and downs of life. It’s how we find joy, community and those connections." 

2. Flex your curiosity 

Conscious leaders look beyond their own role, organization and industry in their quest for inspiration. For those working within sustainable leadership, whose remit often transcends a single function, department or even sector, this willingness to cast the net wide in their hunt for relevant ideas and potential solutions is invaluable. So flex that curiosity muscle as often as you can. That could be as simple as checking out a new podcast that looks at climate developments from a brand new perspective or reading a nonfiction book by an environmental campaigner you admire. But it also means being more curious in your interactions with others. Next time you find yourself ready to disagree with a point made during a meeting, for example, take a pause and challenge yourself to understand the other person’s viewpoint. Get curious about these perspectives, rather than jumping to judgment, and you’ll find skills such as empathy, innovation and communication develop naturally. 

3. ‘Listen as if your life depended on it’

According to 2018 research by the University of Illinois, most people can recall only 20 percent of the ideas expressed by the other person in a conversation. Imagine what implications that has for a CSO looking to understand the barriers to change that are stalling progress on sustainability within an organization? Or the sheer volume of original ideas they might be missing when they fail to absorb the feedback from frontline staff? So instead, "listen as if your life depended on it," recommended Chant. "That means turning off all your planned responses and really listening with the aim of being able to repeat back 90 percent of what they said." As well as allowing you to tap into ideas you’d otherwise have missed, this skill of active listening helps develop all sorts of critical skills required to excel within sustainability, from communication, to engagement, curiosity and empathy.   

4. Choose gratitude 

The future of the planet can be a heavy topic, one that triggers fear, grief and anxiety. One 2021 study in The Lancet found that more than half (59 percent) of 16-25 year olds — the demographic most likely to pursue "green" jobs — were "extremely worried" about the climate crisis. But rather than wallow alongside them, conscious leaders find ways to lift others from a sense of despair and divert their attention to solutions and opportunities instead. To cultivate this skill, practice presence and gratitude. Intentionally take time to identify milestones that have been reached, progress that has been made and exciting new solutions that offer hope.

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