What is Sustainable Leadership? — By Kristi Hodges, Guest Blogger
The term “sustainability” often brings to mind initiatives focused around limiting the destruction done to the earth and its natural resources. In a free association game, phrases like waste water filtration, recycling programs, worm composting, and energy efficiency would probably be popular, and justified, suggestions. Sustainability encompasses all of these projects and a vast number of other ecology-focused programs. But what about sustainability issues that are not directly related to the traditional environmental science topics we all think about when we consider the word sustainability? What about, for example, sustainable tourism, sustainable fashion, sustainable leadership? What is sustainability, after all?
The gold-standard designation for the term sustainability is one that was coined by the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission in 1987: (sustainability) is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Although this definition was initially conceived to depict how humans relate to the planet earth, the meaning is equally applicable in the business world, and in particular, in describing sustainable leadership.
Sustainable business, and sustainable leadership, is not simply an office deciding to go paperless or switch water cooler vendors for a more eco-friendly provider. Sustainable leadership is the conscious decision by an organization’s management to make current business decisions that will have an impact– or rather, not have a negative impact—on the future of the business. Making current decisions with an eye toward the future takes a self-assured leader, as the impact of his or her decisions may not be fully realized until after his tenure with the company has ended. To use an agri-business analogy, the sustainable leader is the farmer who sows the seeds with the understanding that a future farmer in her position will harvest the crop and accept the credit for, and bounty of, her decisions.
A sustainable leader assesses decisions regarding the organization’s human capital with a similar eye to the future. These days it is easy to promote from within, and move employees from one department to another. But are these decisions sustainable for the future of each department, for the employees themselves, and for the greater organization? Do these decisions foster the development of a long-term employee who is committed to the organization and buys into the firm’s value proposition? Do these decisions nurture the employee’s growth, showing that the organization is interested in retaining him or her? As we can see, the role of a sustainable leader is not easy.
Have you observed any sustainable leadership behaviors by your organization’s management? What are your thoughts on these behaviors, and on sustainable leadership in general? Is it worth it to put the extra time into creating a sustainable leadership plan, or is it better to just focus on the here and now?
Kristi Hodges is Associate Director of Executive Education at the Quinlan School of Business and a guest blogger on Executive Decision.