There’s something odd about the notion of “sustainability leadership.” Perhaps it’s that “sustainability” underwhelms. As Michael Braungart reminds us, “Sustainability is boring. How would you characterise your relationship with your spouse? As sustainable? If this is the bigger goal – sustainability – then I feel really sorry because it doesn’t celebrate human creativity and human nature.”

Leadership toward less bad, slower decline and holding steady is somehow not compelling. Dr King didn’t have a dream that things hopefully won’t get too much worse.
But let’s put that aside, assume we all know what we mean when we say sustainability (here’s what I mean), and focus on leadership itself – which may seem more obvious and familiar, but is actually less so.

Ask most people about leadership, and they’ll say, “setting a direction, and getting (or inspiring) people to follow.” Yes, but it isn’t that simple. There are several critical components of effective leadership that step beyond the obvious, ordinary, and easy. That depend on the actions leaders take – most fundamentally in how they speak.

  • Leaders see a world that does not yet exist, that most people perhaps can’t even see – or can see but not believe their own senses, or believe in their ability to bring it into being. Leaders commit to bring that world into being – into general being. Leaders declare that the world they see is possible, and they commit to fulfilling that possibility.[1]
  • Leaders communicate in ways that, yes, shift other people’s perceptions and inspire their actions, but that also evoke other people’s commitment – their shared commitment – and that encourage them in turn to communicate in ways that build coherence and coordination around that shared commitment.
    • This depends on “competences for listening to the concerns of communities, and for developing…interpretations about the situations in which communities of people find themselves…that can serve as effective platforms for people to propose how to act in new ways.”[2]
  • Leaders engender the trust that enables people to coordinate their actions in fulfillment of those shared commitments. This can be done through command-and-control, or, more powerfully, by creating, or enabling the emergence of, coherent teams – and what Ernest Lowe called “autonomy in a coherent whole.”
    • “Creating a coherent team takes time, engagement, and reflection. Producing trust occurs as people participating in a network of commitments, acting in language, come to see each other as reliable performers, and learn to align and connect their interests with each others’ interests and with those of the project.”[3]
  • Leaders are courageous – not just in the sense of bravely facing risk, but also in the sense of full of heart (from the Old French corage, for “heart, innermost feelings,” from the Latin cor, heart). The best leaders move from love.

Which brings us back to “sustainability.” A true sustainability leader, standing in courage, engendering trust, evoking commitment, calls to us from a new world, a world that is thriving, nurturing for all, a world in which, as Bill McDonough puts it, we “love all the children, of all species, for all time.” A world of prosperity, not just in the sense of economic well-being, but in which we move, together, pro spera – toward our hopes, toward flourishing.

Robert Dunham summarizes it well[4]:
– Leaders take care of concerns, and build the capabilities of others to take care of their concerns.
– Leaders build power for themselves and others.
– Leaders make offers.
– Leaders speak and move with a presence, a voice, and identity to have their offers heard and accepted.
– Leaders build new narratives of and commitments for the future with others.

A true leader doesn’t produce followers. A true leader creates more leaders.

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[1] Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores, and Hubert L. Dreyfus, Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation of Solidarity.
[2] Chauncey Bell, My Problem with Design
[3] Gregory A. Hovvelll, Hal Macomber, Lauri Koskelas and John Draper, Leadership And Project Management: Time For A Shift From Fayol To Flores
[4] Robert Dunham, What is a Leader?
(This article was previously published at