We live in times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (also known as the management term VUCA) with unstable economies, transforming societies and a fast-changing climate.
This global situation calls for bold action, a willingness to take risks for the greater good, and collective adaptation to ever-changing conditions. The actions we take now will determine how the world looks as we pass major sustainability milestones — in 2030 and 2050. And the impact of those actions will reach beyond our lifetimes, shaping the lives of generations to come.
Yet our current leadership model is not sufficiently producing this kind of action for a sustainable future, calling to redefine what good leadership looks like. While some aspects of leadership will remain, such as setting out a vision and executing a strategy, the future leader will need to possess an evolved mindset and new skillset in order to lead effectively and make a positive impact.
Leadership skills for the future
In 2015, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) gave us a comprehensive plan for a sustainable world by 2030, tackling major challenges such as climate protection and gender equality. To achieve those goals, new skills and qualities are required — the ones leaders need if they want to pave the way to a sustainable future.
Our current leadership model is not sufficiently producing this kind of action for a sustainable future.
To support this, the Inner Development Goals provide a framework of transformative skills for sustainable development. One dimension is "Acting —Driving Change." It includes "courage" as a quality that emboldens leaders to take steps into the unknown when they might otherwise freeze up. In this framework, courage is defined as the ability to stand up for values, make decisions, take decisive action and, if need be, challenge and disrupt existing structures and views.
In my view, this is one of the most important qualities for successful sustainability leadership in these significant times.
Cultivating courage in the Decade of Action
Sustainability has emerged as the defining issue of our time, and there is still much work to be done. The SDGs are ambitious and holistic, and considering how far we still have to go to achieve all of them, in 2020, the UN declared a Decade of Action: 10 years to transform our world.
Our legacy as leaders depends on our willingness to act. Sustainability is about change management and the transformation of our current systems, which requires bold action. And courage is the foundation of such action.
Courage is not a novel concept to leadership, but it seems absent from many organization values and leadership statements. Yet I believe it is even more important when it comes to sustainability leadership: purpose-driven leadership is about questioning the status quo, overcoming obstacles, dealing with resistance and driving transformation. All of this requires courage.
What is courage in leadership?
Courage is a powerful word that comes from the Latin root word cor, meaning "of the heart." Courage is a quality of the heart. We often think of courage in these terms — a valiant effort by a cartoon warrior, or a large-than-life person overcoming major challenges.
But courage does not need to be that grand — it also exists in our small actions. Courage is moving beyond one’s comfort, speaking up in a meeting, making a difficult decision to do the right thing, investing in a sustainable future.
Courage is at the heart of transformational leadership. Aristotle called it the "first virtue" because it makes all of the other virtues possible: it is the foundation that allows to practice all other leadership virtues consistently.
Courage in sustainability leadership means:
- Thinking not only for the near-term but also for the long-term — considering impact on future generations
- Driving large-scale transformation at the individual and collective level, and for the whole system
- Changing people’s hearts and minds and creating a deep cultural transformation
- Including stakeholders and partnering for co-creation — aligning different viewpoints and forming strong alliances on common ground
- Challenging traditional approaches and driving innovation
- Being resilient and pursuing moonshot goals
- Taking informed and intentional risks — knowing that the greater risk is taking no action at all
Some of these examples may seem daunting. How can you summon the courage to take big steps and make bold changes for the greater good?
Although we describe courage as a quality, it is in fact a decision we can learn to make. Proof of this can be found in every instance of overcoming a fear — we can build courage through exposure and practice. Courage is not the absence of fear but rather finding the strength and faith to move ahead despite of it.
During my professional journey, I have seen people successfully build courage and put it into action — and I have practiced the same myself. Here are three practical tips that can help integrate courage into leadership.
- Couple purpose with ambition. If there is a clear motivation for transformation and a meaning behind it, the journey becomes bigger than oneself. This helps us make difficult decisions and provides the drive for pivotal changes.
- Build a culture and a network of people that prepares for and inspires bold moves. When we are surrounded by people committed to the purpose, their support and the culture can help rewire our thinking around discomfort, risk and failure.
- Find courageous role models. There are examples of courageous individuals all around us, in the media and in our lives. These role models can help us to see something that exists already within ourselves.
Courage is one of the most important leadership qualities, and it is a decision that leaders will need to make every day if they want to contribute to a more sustainable future. Courage enables us to take action, it is contagious, and it also generates hope. If leadership results in influence, then courage generates the underlying trust. Today, as we move through the Decade of Action, we need courageous sustainability leaders more than ever.