How to Become a Sustainable Leader
Leadership StrategiesSustainable LeadershipCareer TransitionsCareer AdviceEnvironmental, Social, and GovernanceLeadershipSuccession PlanningBoard and CEO AdvisorySustainabilityExecutive SearchBoard Director and Chair SearchCEO SuccessionC-Suite SuccessionDevelopment and TransitionAssessment and Benchmarking
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Clarke Murphy
September 15, 2021
4 min read
Leadership StrategiesSustainable LeadershipCareer TransitionsCareer AdviceEnvironmental, Social, and GovernanceLeadershipSuccession PlanningBoard and CEO AdvisorySustainabilityExecutive SearchBoard Director and Chair SearchCEO SuccessionC-Suite SuccessionDevelopment and TransitionAssessment and Benchmarking
Executive Summary
Sustainability is here to stay. We set out how to confidently pivot to this new reality and set a bold vision for change.
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If recent events have highlighted anything, it is that we need to radically re-think what it means to be a business leader today. 

The pandemic has exposed just how unstable many of our organizations are. And the recent unrest around the world in response to racial injustice makes clear that we still have a long way to go to transform our societies—and our businesses—to be more accepting and inclusive. 

We now face a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a new type of business leader—one who is willing to step up and help solve the pressing challenges in our societies and economies. We call these people Sustainable Leaders. 

Sustainable Leaders are those who integrate social and environmental considerations into business strategy. This has not always been a top priority for business leaders. And it may appear to be an overwhelming task, especially to those who succeeded in organizational models of the past. Yet it is a challenge we must all rise to if our businesses are to survive a new world order. 

So, where do we go from here? 

In 2020, we partnered with the United Nations Global Compact on a major research project to help you chart this course. By studying 55 sustainability pioneers—CEOs and board leaders who have a track record of successfully integrating sustainability into business strategy—we were able to create a blueprint for sustainable leadership that you can use in your own organization. 

It reveals that Sustainable Leaders all share a Sustainable Mindset—a purpose-driven belief that business is not a commercial activity divorced from the wider societal and environmental context in which it operates. Speaking of his own conviction, Mads Nipper, the CEO of Grundfos, encapsulates this concept neatly: “I am 100% convinced that the companies that don’t take a full stakeholder approach—creating value for all stakeholders, not just shareholders—won’t be competitive and won’t exist.” 

Having a Sustainable Mindset is critical, but it is not enough. It must be paired with the right skillset. Sustainable Leaders also demonstrate four critical leadership attributes that enable them to drive transformation within and beyond their own four walls.  

Multi-Level Systems Thinking: Sustainable leaders go beyond a deep understanding of their own organizational system and incorporate the interplay with the larger business, societal and environmental systems around them. Critically, they cut through that complexity to drive targeted decisions and actions that turn sustainability into a competitive advantage. 

Stakeholder Inclusion: Sustainable leaders do not manage stakeholders, they include them. They understand a wide range of viewpoints in order to drive decision-making with all those stakeholders in mind and, where possible, actively involve those stakeholders in actioning the decisions and sharing in the benefits. 

Disruptive Innovation: Transformation may be easy to talk about, but it is tough to deliver. Sustainable leaders possess the courage to challenge traditional approaches and a willingness to disrupt their business and industry—they ask why it cannot be done differently. They cut through bureaucracy and make bold investments that eliminate the trade-off between profitability and sustainability. 

Long-Term Activation: Sustainable leaders do not simply have an orientation toward the long term, they set audacious goals and drive concerted action to surpass them. To do this requires a great deal of courage to stay the course in the face of setbacks and to make decisions that may be unpopular with short-term oriented stakeholders. 

Can you see these four traits present in how you approach your work? Or is there more work to be done?  

Read more insights on how to begin your journey to Sustainable Leadership here.