Leadership for the Decade of Action

Russell Reynolds Associates sets out everything you need to know on your path to sustainable leadership.


Sustainability has emerged as the defining issue of our time. Our legacy as leaders depends on our willingness to act.

There is now an urgent need for a new type of business leader—one who can deliver financial success while also making the long-term sustainability and resilience of our world a top priority. We call these people sustainable leaders.

But what sets sustainable leaders apart? And how can you make sustainability core to the DNA of your leadership team?

Russell Reynolds Associates partnered with the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) to study a group of pioneering CEOs and board members who have effectively integrated sustainability into business strategy.

Our research identifies the differentiating characteristics of sustainable leaders and provides a playbook for how you too can make sustainable leadership core to your organization.






of CEOs believe the integration of sustainability is critical to business success

of companies are actually implementing sustainability in their operations

of CEOs believe business is currently playing a critical role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

of role specifications demand sustainability experience or mindsets

Access full report now

The business case for sustainability

Your corporation is under growing pressure to look beyond profits and quarterly performance to deliver genuine long-term value for all stakeholders: your employees, customers, suppliers, and the communities in which you operate.

Experience shows that corporations that integrate the sustainability agenda into their business enjoy substantial benefits to their bottom line.

  • Access favorable financing
  • Attract top talent
  • Unlock new market opportunities
  • Grow your customer base

"Only great leaders can change our world"

- Clarke Murphy
Russell Reynolds Associates


Are sustainable leaders born, or are they made?

Sustainable leadership is not a castle in the sky. There are clear examples of leaders across the business spectrum who already deliver tangible sustainability outcomes alongside financial success.

Russell Reynolds Associates and the United Nations Global Compact studied pioneering CEOs and board members with a notable track record of integrating sustainability into business strategy.

It can be easy to assume that these leaders have always had an innate passion for sustainability. Yet our research shows this is not always true. Sustainable leaders are not just born. They are also made. 


55 sustainable leaders

4 regions

6 industries

Access Full Report Now



45% The Born Believers

Those who described a passion for the environment or social issues having been fostered from an early age, often since childhood.


43% The Convinced

Those who described an increased understanding of the strategic importance of sustainability as they grew in their careers and saw the interconnectivity between corporate decision-making and externalities such as the environment and social issues.


12% The Awoken

Those who described a pivotal moment of realization, prompted by some major event or experience, that there was more to business than profit and that they personally had to do more.


Inside the mind of a sustainable leader

The sustainable leaders we studied are without exception at the top of their game. They not only show astute commercial acumen, they also embrace their role as changemakers to drive real progress toward sustainability outcomes

How? Our research reveals that sustainable leaders combine a sustainable mindset with four critical leadership attributes

Sustainable Mindset

Sustainable leaders have a deeply rooted belief that business is not a commercial activity divorced from the wider societal and environmental context in which it operates. They believe that to be successful in the long term, leaders must innovate and manage across commercial, societal and environmental outcomes.

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 don’t manage stakeholders, they include them. They actively seek to 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.

Long-Term Activation

Sustainable leaders do not simply have an orientation toward the long term, they set clear stretch goals and rigorously drive concerted action in pursuit of 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 some stakeholders.

Disruptive Innovation

Sustainable leaders possess the courage to challenge traditional approaches—they ask why it cannot be done differently. They cut through bureaucracy to drive the innovation needed to find novel solutions that do away with a trade-off between profitability and sustainability.

Access Full Report Now


Lessons from leaders

To truly drive sustainability outcomes, leaders must influence colleagues across their organization and stakeholders beyond it.  

Build Passion and Purpose

Passion and belief drive commitment and behavior. Communicate what drives you, but above all, help your teams identify how their own values and motivations connect to the organization’s purpose.

Make it Tangible

Sustainability can feel like an abstract concept. To really commit, people need to be able to “touch and feel” it. Help leaders and employees understand what it really means in the context of their day-to-day jobs, the actions they take, and the decisions they make.

Make it Measurable

Knowing what to do and how you are doing matters. Define clear goals, put in place easily understood measures, and give your teams access to the data.

Make it Core to Who You Are

Sustainability is not something you do; it is part of who you are. Weave sustainability into the fabric of your organization by making it core to strategy and embedding it into business processes and talent management frameworks.

Be Practical

Embrace discomfort and openly discuss what is hard. Accept that setbacks will occur and that sometimes uncomfortable compromises will have to be made. Don’t let the desire for perfect decisions prevent forward momentum.

Sustainable leadership in action


“At the beginning of the journey, if the CEO is not the engine of this, it cannot work. The CEO must be the ultimate force behind this. But then as time goes on and the topic is established, the group that is involved and supporting it is just as important as the CEO.”

Francesco Starace
CEO and General Manager, Enel


“There has to be commitment and passion from top management, and specifically the board. If you have people raising their eyebrows and saying they don’t believe in it, then it isn’t going to work. Everyone has to link arms and agree they are going to do this together.”

Douglas Leeland Peterson
CEO, S&P Global/SPGI


“If sustainability is a key part of your purpose and strategy, you don’t have time for leaders who won’t embrace it. I gave all my leaders a chance to step up and participate. Although I gave them all a chance, if they didn’t get it or support it, they didn’t belong at the company. Leaders need to walk their talk.”

Denise Morrison
Independent Director, Visa; Former CEO, Campbell’s Soup Company


“Leaders will need to consider more perspectives in the future – you can only lose trust once. You need a feeling for public concerns, a kind of compassion. The thing that hinders progress the most is missing curiosity for other views. If you want to make a big change it's about cooperation and collaboration.”

Saori Dubourg
Member of the Board of Executive Directors, Basf


“We need to unlearn what we have done in the past and think of building up new competencies for future leaders around sustainability and circularity towards reinventing new forms of progress.”

Ilham Kadri
CEO and Chair of the Executive Committee, Solvay

Access Full Report Now

Where next? The path to sustainable business

The path to sustainable business is not quick. Nor is it straightforward. Yet there are clear actions you can take today to start your journey.

Audit your position on sustainability

Do you have specific and measurable sustainability goals for each major business line? You do not need many, but the ones you do have should be sufficiently aspirational to drive real change. If you do not have sustainability goals or are not satisfied with the ones you have, now is the time to engage with relevant business-line leaders to define and set them for 2020 and beyond.

Assess understanding of your sustainability goals

Talk to leaders at every level in your organization to see if they know what your sustainability goals are and whether they truly understand what achieving those goals will entail. If knowledge is limited, work with relevant business-line leaders to improve communication, focusing on the “why” and the “how” of each goal.

Look again at your hiring processes

Creating a sustainable company is undoubtedly a matter of strategy, policy, and process, but it is also one of leadership and people. As you embark on your next few senior hires and/or board appointments, deliberately scrutinize the role responsibilities and candidate requirements and challenge the hiring team to make sustainability part of the criteria.

Review leadership talent frameworks

Your organization’s leadership talent frameworks—everything from competency models and objectives to how you manage your succession processes—ultimately signal to current and future leaders how they can succeed at your organization. Do these frameworks sufficiently prioritize sustainability? If not, work out where and how they can be better embedded.




Access our interview guide to help you find the next generation of sustainable leaders