8 Mar 2019

What is sustainability leadership?

What does sustainability leadership really entail? Is it simply a combination of practicing leadership and working on issues of sustainability? Or does connecting the two words into one concept bring about some new meaning? We took a look at what the literature says, and connected it to what we wish to achieve with ASAP’s sustainability leadership training.

Mary A. Ferdig is repeatedly cited in scholarly work about sustainability leadership, and she was among the first to present a distinct description of it. According to her, sustainability leadership can be used to challenge common assumptions about what leadership is, for example, who counts as a leader or what counts as a leadership role. She believes,

Mary A. Ferdig (p.32)

“anyone who takes responsibility for understanding and acting upon complex sustainability challenges qualifies as a ‘sustainability leader’ whether or not they hold a formal leadership position or acknowledged political and social-economic influence”

In this manner, sustainability leadership represents a significantly broad understanding of what leadership is. It includes everyday leaders from all walks of life that engage in actions with others to make a sustainable difference in organizations and communities*. How does this connect to your idea of leadership? Do you believe that progress within sustainability could be driven from a position without recognized political or social influence?

Since then, it has been argued that sustainability leadership is a concept in its own right. Namely, it is not merely about adding sustainability to leadership, or leadership to sustainability. But rather to challenge development in both fields, in order to change the direction of our economies and societies. It would be a mistake to try to incorporate sustainability into mainstream theory and practice, rather than analyzing and transforming those aspects of the mainstream that are driving unsustainable practices.**

Moreover, it is insufficient to only add leadership to sustainability practice, or sustainability to leadership practice. Being a sustainability leader is to attempt to challenge any thought pattern, small or big, that is guiding us in an unsustainable direction. Sustainability leaders are driven by curiosity and a desire to learn, challenge, and improve.

Building a more sustainable future is a complex mission that demands cooperation across sectors and cultures. As a result, we need leaders to have the courage and determination to put their own ego aside for the possibility to construct bonds of trust in an obviously uncertain environment. At the same time, we should not expect leaders to provide the answers, rather the opposite. Answers to sustainability challenges demand the strength of many minds working together, a good solution is cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

Mary A. Ferdig (p.31)

”Rather than providing all of the answers, sustainability leaders create opportunities for people to come together and generate their own answers – to explore, learn, and devise a realistic course of action to address sustainability challenges.”

Change for the better is a massive team effort, the creation and implementation of new and more sustainable ideas, one by one. Our sustainability leadership training aims to empower students from all disciplines to drive the change for a better future. The gap between our knowledge about the ecological crisis and our collective behaviour needs to be addressed. We see students as an obvious group to lead this team effort, because they are the future decision-makers, consumers, intra- and entrepreneurs, and role models.

Do you also feel that it is time for great change? Join us and all the other sustainability leaders!



*Ferdig, M. A. (2007) “Sustainability Leadership: Co-creating a Sustainable Future”, Journal of Change Management, 7(1): 25-35.

**Bendell, J. & Little, R. (2015) “Seeking sustainability leadership”, Journal of Corporate Citizenship, 60: 13-26.

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