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Collaborator in Chief: How sustainability leaders are made

What makes sustainable business leaders unique, and how can they expand their reach?

Question: What do you get when you apply psychology to sustainability leadership?

Answer: Steve Schein’s new book, "A New Psychology for Sustainability Leadership: The Hidden Power of Ecological Worldviews."

In developing the book, Schein interviewed 75 executives — 54 of them in senior-level sustainability positions at multinational companies — about their relationship to the natural world. He heard about what early experiences formed triggered their initial interest in sustainability. 

Last month, GreenBiz published an excerpt from the book demonstrating a psychologist’s perspective.

Schein re-frames ecological issues to advance sustainability leadership. He focuses on what he calls an "ecological worldview," which can apply to ecology broadly speaking (not just the environmental, but also social and community as well).

But what about harnessing psychology as a tool to develop talent?

Ecological worldviews

As a sustainability professional, what early experiences formed triggered your interest in sustainability? What, at its core, creates that sense of urgency about sustainability amongst executives? 

These are the core questions Schein asks those interviewed for his book, but also to you as the reader.

Perhaps childhood experiences in nature, formative experiences with environmental education or a memorable teacher, bearing witness to poverty in developing countries, perceiving capitalism as a vehicle for change or having sense of spirituality and service.

Schein observes these life experiences as critical antecedents of the "ecological worldview," a counterpoint to the pervasive belief that humans control nature. Eco-centrists emphasize human dependence on ecosystems.

Sustainability leaders in Schein’s interviews expressed their eco-centrism in five ways:

1. Acknowledgement of humans as embedded in Earth’s biosphere.

2. Knowledge of planetary vulnerability.

3. Belief in the intrinsic value of nature.

4. Systems consciousness, or capacity to see themselves and their organizations within complex ecosystems.

5. Earth-centric circles of identity, or ability to empathize with a widening circle of human communities and, eventually, all species.

Lessons for leadership

When I spoke to Schein, the practicality of his observations was top of mind. Identifying psychological foundations for careers in sustainability is interesting, but how is it useful?

Luckily, Schein does more than diagnose; he suggests how ecological worldviews can improve management and nudge us to consider how sustainability leadership must evolve.

“I propose that as sustainability educators, consultants and executives, we need to develop a new type of shared language,” he wrote.

For example, Schein suggested acting as a "Collaborator in Chief" and cultivating a "culture of collective benefit" may lead to breakthroughs in environmental technologies. Being consistently curious and self-aware may help to attract top talent and overcome obstacles in business.

Schein also highlights the value of leaders holding longer time horizons and appreciating the diversity and context of worldviews.

I’ve written about the importance of these qualities in sustainability leadership before. Collaboration, systems thinking and regular reflective practices consistently arise as qualities of effective sustainability leaders. 

Practical tools: The E-SWAT

To aid the cultivation of these qualities, Schein offers a practical tool. The E-SWAT, or Ecological Sustainability Worldview Assessment Tool, as a series of reflective exercises to help leaders engage their deeper purpose and understand how it may align with or differ from others.

In combination with E-SWAT, he encourages individuals to examine their worldviews with complimentary practices, such as reflective journaling and meditation.

"The more insight that a sustainability change agent can gain into their personal story — in particular their connection to the natural world and ecosystems — it can really enhance their resiliency, their clarity and their courage," he said. "Given the scale and length of time it takes to fully implement these types of sustainability initiatives and the wide range of stakeholders and resistances that they face, that [awareness] is extremely valuable."

At a broader level, Schein urges the development of new assessments and workshops for ecological worldviews, a greater developmental focus on corporate sustainability leaders and the integration of eco-social sciences into sustainable business curriculums.

Tipping point

I pushed Schein to consider the non-converted. After all, if you are reading this article, may we assume Schein is preaching to the choir? 

Schein is optimistic, particularly after the events of this summer, including Pope Francis' encyclical on climate change, widespread attention to the California drought and the lead-up to the COP21 meeting.

"I think we’re potentially at a new tipping point," he said. "[There is] a new groundswell of awareness of the environmental consequences [of unsustainability]."

The challenge to capture this moment and advance sustainable business will be as much psychological as tactical, said Schein. A breakthrough is possible, and the first step is self-examination. I encourage you all to read his book as a starting place.

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