What makes a sustainability leader?
10 October 2023

I’m often asked what makes a good Sustainability Lead(er). The answer – as usual – is that it depends. The criteria would differ depending on how the organisation understands sustainability and the organisational culture(s) that determine how things get done.

Most SLs find their jobs challenging. Geoff Marlow’s substack piece ‘Get a head and fall behind’ shares the miserable truth on why many find their jobs damn near impossible. As he says, “organisations have an unfortunate habit of appointing individuals to “Head of X” when “X” requires systemic change.” If pushed on capabilities, knowledge sets and personal qualities, I’d say that SLs need context, clarity, cynefin, connection and charisma. We are more likely to survive / succeed if we:

  1. Understand the organisation, the business model and its socio-ecological context (context)
  2. Understand what sustainability means – from compliance to resilience, and as much as possible in-between (clarity)
  3. Know the difference between complicated and complex challenges and how to approach them effectively (cynefin)
  4. Know how to work with formal and informal networks both inside and beyond the organisation (connection)
  5. Are able to attract attention and influence people (charisma).

Of course, groups of humans have been working on their tricky intersect with other people and nature for a long, long time. Number five is indispensable and draws on my cross-training in an indigenous system that turned a dysfunctional cynic like me into something more useful for society.

These five criteria would pertain to a CSO. They also apply to some senior sustainability managers because – believe it or not – some organisations don’t think this transition requires executive capabilities. If you’re employed as a manager and aspire to do more than tick boxes, you also need an understanding of power and agency, otherwise you will burnout and/or get too cynical for anyone’s good.

General sustainability consultants who help organisations improve thinking, decision-making and action must also learn fast to ensure they’re up to speed on the company in question (this excludes technical specialists in, for example, climate scenarios or green taxonomies).

What have I missed?


Banner cropped from a photo by Guilherme Stecanella on Unsplash

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