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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. 

  • By Molly McCarty on 8.8.2012 at 3:28 pm

    As an active member of a number of student organizations, the concept of a sustainable leader is intriguing. Often the decisions made today are less beneficial tomorrow or in three months or next year. Being reminded that there are others who will take over the organization after they graduate doesn’t happen enough and it puts things into perspective. It encourages us to think beyond our own sphere of influence and look towards the ones who will lead after our term is over. Are we proud of what we pass on? Do we believe this is what’s best overall or is it a quick fix? Great post Kristi!

  • By Aaron Durnbaugh on 8.8.2012 at 4:28 pm

    Great post Kristi,

    I applaud you for laying claim to sustainability from an executive education perspective. You are right, sustainability is a process that can be owned by all disciplines. Sustainability isn’t limited to the natural sciences and ecology. Economics and social issues round out second and third values of the ‘triple-bottom line’ approach. If elements of equity, economics and environment aren’t reflected than sustainability isn’t achieved. I also appreciate Molly’s comment about impacts over time. Too often the near-term trumps the life-cycle approach to our decisions. Hopefully sustainability brings tools forward that inform our decisions, and impacts on all stakeholders and make us better citizens. Thanks for adding to the dialogue on sustainability at Loyola.

    If anyone has any ideas on how Loyola can be more sustainable or wants to learn about what Loyola is already doing, please visit luc.edu/sustainability.

  • By David Treering on 8.9.2012 at 11:17 am

    Excellent post, Kristi! Thanks for giving us the business world perspective! Great point about achieving sustainability not being entirely about isolated actions or decisions, like “going paperless,” on the part of an organization. Sustainability is not about reaching some end point or finish line. It’s about the attitude of continuous improvement through measuring progress, and how to make changes that bring everyone along today, while making sure we are “proud of what we pass on.”

  • By Quinlan School of Business » What is Sustainable Leadership? — By Kristi Hodges, Guest Blogger | Sustainable Communities | Scoop.it on 9.1.2012 at 1:24 pm

    […] Did you just accept a leadership position in a student org?  […]

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