8 sustainability leadership capabilities

by Shannon Houde

I once attended a workshop that examined the issue of leadership for change: integrating sustainability into an institution’s core mission and transforming organizational identity, culture and processes to enable change. It was delivered by Leith Sharp, director of executive education for sustainability leadership at Harvard University’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. She has 20 years’ experience greening universities all over the world and is the one-woman sustainability machine behind Harvard University’s green transformation.

Sharp suggests that what’s really needed is “disruptive sustainability”: a kind of leadership that brings about a change of direction, away from eco-efficiency and “doing less bad” of old-school sustainability approaches, and towards what she calls “eco-effectiveness.”

But how? A good place to start is to look at the top capabilities of change leaders. A 2012 report from the University of Western Sydney (PDF) examined the capabilities that count in education for sustainability and found that the top ones have much in common with the attributes of change-capable and resilient organizations and societies, as well as the values of the world’s major religions (which I thought was interesting). They are as follows:


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1. Having energy, passion and enthusiasm

This is all about commitment and the ability to keep going when times get tough, because they will. Look for candidates who have bounced back from career failures, who have extensive networks to draw inspiration from, and who are realistic about the challenges that a role like this will involve.

2. Being willing to give credit to others

High interpersonal and emotional intelligence are crucial to successful sustainability leadership and come into special focus when credit is due. Seek out candidates with a strong history of leading multi-functional teams and a track record of celebrating others’ successes.

3. Enthusiasm and working productively with diversity

A sustainability leader needs to be able to affect change in areas that they aren’t expert in, which means inspiring and working productively with people in all branches of the organization. Listening to conflicting views and taking an interest in others’ experiences are important traits that any candidate will need to be able to demonstrate.

4. Being transparent and honest in dealings with others

I can’t stress how important this is. Integrity in the workplace is especially crucial for sustainability leaders — if you’re not transparent and honest, how will anyone trust you? Ensure that candidates have good character by getting them prepared for companies to triple-check references from previous work employers or from professors who have mentored them.

5. Thinking laterally and creatively

This is a given. The ability to be creative and find a way around seemingly unconquerable challenges will be a day-to-day requirement for anyone companies are looking to take on. Look for a resilient and strategic problem-solver who doesn’t do “can’t do.”

6. Being true to one’s values and ethics

This links to No. 4. The ability to be decisive, stick to principles and not compromise are important traits for any sustainability professional. Look for candidates with personal magnetism, strong character and a history of staying true to their values in challenging circumstances.

7. Listening to different views before making a decision

Empathy and active listening skills are crucial for sustainability professionals who want to create change. While being true to your values is important, it’s also necessary to bring others — who may not share your view — along on the journey. It’s a difficult balance to strike, as an overly authoritarian leadership style can inhibit the kind of collaboration that must be fostered to make progress.

8. Understanding personal strengths and limitations

This is about knowing yourself, knowing what you can do and, more important, knowing what you can’t do. Many sustainability initiatives fail because the leader’s ambition was too high or the project too complex for the organization to handle at that time. The ability to take a realistic view of the situation —whether in terms of energy, time, capacity or finance — is a very important skill.

I hope my comments help you to shape and define your university’s future leaders and alums for this challenging change landscape.

This post originally appeared on

Photo by Moleshko, via Pixabay


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