This kind of behavior is the bedrock of sustainability

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Leadership in sustainability depends upon a solid foundation.

Breaking news: Sustainability is hard. Making even modest progress is daunting. Working effectively in this domain requires us to think not only about the scientific, technical and organizational challenges, but also about human psychology and behavior — others' and our own.

The good news is, you don’t have to run an energy company or a government to make a difference. But sustainability and climate action require executing some of the most difficult behaviors in the human repertoire: proactive behaviors, those that are more forward-looking and change-inducing than others.

Sustainability requires proaction

Proactive behavior in the workplace is what I study as a professor of management and leadership. At its core, behaving proactively means changing the paths we are traveling, to avoid unsatisfying outcomes and achieve better futures.

Our initial research introduced a valid self-report measure of one’s tendency to behave proactively. Since then, many studies have shown the scale to positively predict job performance, leadership evaluations, career satisfaction, promotions and pay, and much more. And now I study proactive behavior in the domain of climate change.

Sustainability and climate action demand and even epitomize proactivity. That’s a big reason they are so difficult.

Sustainability is hard but offers hope

Behaving proactively defies our natural tendencies, despite its long-term survival value. Certain short-term costs psychologically (and organizationally) outweigh uncertain long-term gains. Even if we take on the responsibility and decide to act, we get overwhelmed and often feel powerless and alone.

I discussed the frustrations and gratifications of working in the sustainability arena with Deborah Lawrence, a researcher at University of Virginia whose courses include "Climate, You and CO2." Periodically over the years, her work has been disheartening. But now as she gets out of bed every day and stands in front of her students, she loves knowing that wind and solar are ramping up quickly, major automakers around the world are committing to all-electric fleets and our governors and mayors are putting ambitious targets into policies.

A useful lesson: Optimism about the future is better than pessimism. Better yet is realistic optimism: understanding the difficulties while also seeing reasons for hope. Best is to also take a more proactive approach to the work.

Proactive work vs. 'typical' work

Behaving proactively differs in vital ways from most everyday work. First, it requires a longer-term, future focus more than a focus on past habits and immediate circumstances. Second, its intention is to create constructive change, rather than maintain a status quo or continue on current trajectories. Third is a strong action orientation, rather than the passivity that allows unattended problems to grow and opportunities to slip past.

Proactivity propels a visionary future rather than one that simply unfolds without our influence. In contrast, much on-the-job behavior is fairly routine, habitual and go-with-the-flow. Such business as usual will not solve the big sustainability problems or seize the big opportunities. 

Lawrence’s work is anything but routine. She and her collaborators contemplate alternative futures determined by how humanity chooses to use land on a global scale. Growing biofuels, increasing crop production and conserving forests create different climate outcomes and different suites of goods, ecosystem services and values. We have many options; what we do and what we get in return affects our psychological as well as our physical and financial well-being.

All members of Lawrence’s interdisciplinary Food, Fuel and Forests group, representing a highly diverse set of professional specialties, could complete and publish narrow studies far more quickly by staying in their comfortable silos. But they view their boundary-crossing, silo-busting approach — proactive in its own right — as worth the additional time and effort. Pulling this off, though, requires a special brand of leadership.

Proactive leadership

Real leadership, over time, necessarily involves initiating and sustaining proactive change to create better futures. This kind of leadership can come from anyone in any position, not just top executives. Esteemed orchestra conductor Benjamin Zander, known for empowering musicians and inspiring brilliant performances, calls this "leading from any chair."

Efforts to lead change often are actively resisted. As Lawrence pulled her group together, some colleagues did not want to look at things in the new ways required of interdisciplinary, integrative work. Or, they didn’t see the payoffs. Such hurdles are inherent to proactive leadership, but we can’t allow them to slow us down.

At its best, proactive leadership aims to create the most impactful change: the greatest positive consequences over time for the greatest number of beneficiaries. That is not a bad definition of great leadership, or of the virtues of sustainability.

Future-oriented thinking and proactive leadership cannot be occasional things. The entire mission requires it, lots of it, from more people, unfailingly over time. 

Actionable mindsets

Leading proactively starts with deciding to try. Adopting certain mindsets is key.

Whatever your job title, view leadership as central to your work. Everyone can improve their leadership effectiveness by trying new approaches, engaging in hard reflection and digesting easy-to-find articles and books on leadership.

View your sustainability mission as an amazing learning opportunity. To help you learn as you go, adopt a growth mindset: "I can learn new ways of working and leading." Its counterpart, a fixed mindset, is "I am what I am, I’m never going to change." Keep learning and growth top-of-mind as you think about leading both yourself and others.

For Lawrence, this meant taking on new leadership roles and listening to scholars from other disciplines with differing perspectives on sustainability. At the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford this year, she steeped herself in cognitive psychology, behavioral economics and philosophy. "The other fellows asked if I was trying to communicate better about climate change or trying to get people to act on climate change. I realized I really want both. I can’t just study this anymore — I want to make things happen." 

In other words, she decided to stretch herself and explore new kinds of sustainability leadership. While organizing and leading a different kind of research team, she invests also in community action to help transform her hometown into a climate leader, one house and one business at a time.

Creating better futures

Leading proactively, trying to create better futures, is stressful. Most of us know how important it is to take care of ourselves, but how many of us are really doing so? As you try to help your organizations and our planet adapt, think about how well you are adapting personally.

The best coping includes classic stress management strategies plus directly addressing — fixing or making progress on — the problems causing the stress. Frustrated by the hopelessness of climate change? Don’t overdo the fretting. Swing into action, and start fixing a worthy problem or pursuing an enticing opportunity. 

These and other strategies are decidedly proactive: You are taking appropriate actions now to create better personal and professional futures. That ultimately will help you — and the rest of us — create a more sustainable future.

Sustainability work is important and meaningful, fitting the personal values of GreenBiz readers. That is a major psychological asset when pursuing proactive work missions. Vent about your frustrations, but also appreciate your very real contributions to a most worthy cause. 

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