The Qualities of a Sustainable Leader

The Sustainable MBA

The Qualities of a Sustainable Leader

A pioneer in the leadership studies field once said, "Leaders are people who are able to express themselves fully."

Fully expressing oneself requires having something to express. Perhaps the most pressing idea facing business leaders today is making the case for sustainability and successfully running a sustainable company. Businesses face a future of fewer and more expensive resources. Pressure from stakeholders on Main Street, Wall Street and K Street will shape how a company conducts its affairs and is publicly perceived.

Certainly, as people grasp the magnitude and speed of change needed to address the environmental, social and economic issues that we face, there is a growing need for leaders who take us "far, fast" -- as Al Gore recently said in a speech.

Taking organizations "far, fast" requires a new breed of individuals who have the know-how, the capacity and the courage to drive broad-based sustainability initiatives that enhance performance and adds value to the bottom line. This type of leadership will be critical for companies that want to adopt effective and competitive sustainability strategies.

What it Takes to Be a Sustainability Leader

Management teams tasked with steering organizations in this new direction need to be able to navigate unpredictable challenges and understand how to turn them into opportunities. Leaders with sustainability know-how learn and adapt quickly, commit people and resources confidently and inspire others. In return, they find themselves heading companies that are innovative, able to attract and retain talented employees and rewarded with increased shareholder value and other financial benefits.

Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface Inc., exemplifies this type of leader. Anderson had a "spear in the chest" epiphany 14 years ago. Since then, he has turned his carpet manufacturing business into one of the country's leading sustainable businesses. He helped Interface significantly increase profits (stock prices have increased 550 percent in the last five years) and his efforts led the carpet industry to change its practices. Today, Interface holds significant market share and is halfway to realizing its goals of using zero non-renewable resources and producing zero waste and carbon emissions by 2020.

How can one become a successful sustainability leader? First, by gaining practical skills and know-how. The best and the brightest are skilled at:
  • Using the principles and frameworks of sustainable management to help orient, make sense of and guide business strategy;
  • Being able to make the business case for sustainability and establish criteria for redesigning business models, products and services;
  • Learning how to apply emerging management tools such as the "integrated bottom line," stakeholder analysis and engagement, lifecycle analysis, full-cost accounting and sustainability reporting.
Business leaders can learn these skills by working in the trenches year after year. Another increasingly popular option is to accelerate learning by attending one of the country's sustainability-focused executive or MBA programs. The best of these programs are taught by recognized experts who not only share their knowledge, but also their experience in helping professionals develop these competencies to navigate the social, environmental and economic complexities of our time.

More than Skills, it Takes Courage
While skills and sustainability know-how are prerequisites, the ability to create a business case for sustainability requires the ability to tie those skills to less tangible ones, including being able to inspire and develop others and ensure a company's culture, systems and strategy are aligned.

The capacity to pay attention to intangibles and act in uncertain times requires courage. Courage is a virtue that few companies or business schools discuss. Yet, courage should be a central thread in sustainable business education. It can be taught by developing the attributes of a pragmatic learner, a good communicator and an effective collaborator.

Adopting the stance of a learner helps leaders inquire about and act upon pressing challenges such as sustainability in an ongoing way. Inquiry-disciplined reflection on experience-helps leaders learn more quickly from their mistakes and re-chart a new course that is grounded in the organization's goals and values.

A competent collaborator facilitates change, aligns expectations and drives solutions that satisfy all stakeholders. Involving stakeholders in the process of listening, learning and building shared commitments is at the heart of effective leadership.

By “expressing themselves fully” through competence, capacity and courage, business leaders can convince their shareholders, regulators, customers, employees and suppliers that sustainability is good for business and society. These leaders can help move us “far, fast.”

Nicola Acutt, Ph.D., is Director of Curriculum and faculty member at Presidio School of Management. Nicola has worked as a consultant to the South African government on natural resource policy and coastal management as well as the London-based Business Partners for Development.