16 Oct 2018

Leadership for Sustainability, ASAP!

We know we said it before - but one of the best things with partnerships is the amazing people you get to meet. Erika Svensson is a board member at Sustainergies and a great inspiration when it comes to leadership. We asked her to write a blogpost about her view on leadership, we hope you'll like it! /Team ASAP

In order to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all, we as nations have agreed on The Sustainable Development Goals. These interconnected 17 goals should be reached by year 2030. In less than 12 years from now the world has to be transformed, or significantly bettered. Will we and can me make it?

The key to every transformation is always leadership. Over the years the concept and practice of leadership has been described in various ways. During the last century it was common to believe that people were born with specific “leadership” traits (born leaders). It was also common to think of leaders as heroes or messiahs -  think “CEO Celebrity”. We can still see this in our fascination with people like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and other famous CEO’s. We want to believe that these charismatic figures are capable of intuitively cutting through today’s complex world and can produce visionary and sustainable solutions. But we are often disappointed - sometimes in the solution or product itself and sometimes in the person who ultimately does not seem to model the virtues and values that we want him or her to embody.

To address some of the limitations of these older leadership concepts newer ideas have also emerged, such as referring to leadership “styles”, emphasizing “situational” leadership (adapting one’s leadership depending on the situation), and even transformative leadership (the leader as a transformative power, being able to motivate and transform others).

Erika Svensson, board member at Sustainergies

“Today, there is a growing view that leadership should be viewed as a social process - a process that happens between people, not in people. In this sense, leadership is contextual and a collective effort.”

But the focus is again shifting. Today, there is a growing view that leadership should be viewed as a social process - a process that happens between people, not in people. In this sense, leadership is contextual and a collective effort.

Why is this new view of leadership emerging now? Today’s rapid changes and exponential technologies demand a different kind of leadership than was needed in an industrial predictable context. Many of the problems that are facing us today are “wicked” problems: a wicked problem is a problem we have not seen before (i.e., climate change), it is often both complicated and complex, we do not have prior routines or processes in place to solve these problems, and our experiences are inadequate to help us solve them. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. We recognize this from our efforts to solve sustainable challenges of every kind.

Achieving sustainable development means addressing complex and sometimes wicked challenges. So what kind of leadership is necessary to reach the Sustainable Development Goals? Key competencies that leaders of any kind and at every level need to master include: contextual understanding, the ability to deal with complexity and the ability to effectively cooperate with others.

Contextual understanding is an understanding of the situation that surrounds us, with its conditions -  trends, values and stakeholders of an organisation - and of course knowledge of the sustainable challenges facing society today.

Dealing with complexity means thinking systemically. Everything is connected, somehow, even if you might not see it. Being a systems thinker means putting the whole before the parts, striving to see the relations and interconnections. Complexity also challenges your moral imagination, the ability to be simultaneously ethical and successful by envisioning new and creative alternatives.

Sustainable development cannot be achieved as a “a one person show”. Due to the nature and scope of the challenge, it requires a collective effort. Thus, collaborative skills are crucial. You are going to have to work with a diverse set of individuals and stakeholders who have a stake in the change you are proposing. Since you will need many different perspectives, competences and experiences, it will be crucial for you to tap into a group’s “collective intelligence” which is the intelligence embodied in a diverse group of people. Therefore communicative skills that help you build trust and openness are crucial.

To reach the sustainable development goals we need leaders. But the older approaches to leadership will not suffice. A new approach is required that is more sophisticated, collaborative and collective. This is because leaders today more than ever must act in ways that service the whole. Our success or failure are dependent on how well we support each other.


Written by Erika Svensson, board member at Sustainergies

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