What Is Sustainable Leadership? | Top Universities

What Is Sustainable Leadership?

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Stephanie Lukins

Updated Feb 14, 2022



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Sponsored by Newcastle University Business School

In recent years, mounting social pressure has contributed to a significant shift in the type of leadership seen across businesses – from startups in their infancy, to multinational corporations.

As the world becomes increasingly aware of the impact businesses have on the triple bottom line, also known as the three P’s – people, planet and profit – it’s important for those at the top to embrace sustainable leadership.

To find out more, we spoke with Dr Joanne James, Director of Executive Education and Dr Jenny Davidson, Executive MBA Degree Program Director at Newcastle University Business School.

What does sustainable leadership look like?

Dr Davidson: Sustainable leadership is all about adopting a responsible approach to the way that we lead, stopping to think about the wider impact of our actions on society and the environment. This might mean considering our wider stakeholder group, the natural systems within which we are operating and their limits.

It’s crucial to begin by exploring and understanding how our individual roles might contribute to tackling global challenges such as climate change and gender inequality and in doing so to recognize the value that our individual actions might bring. Responsible leaders are always looking up and out beyond their role, organization and sector.

How is leadership education changing and what is Newcastle University Business School’s approach to it? 

Dr James: Leadership education for the future of work recognizes that we are working in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous contexts (VUCA). Leadership is not a position or an individual person but a series of practices that enables collaborative action towards a common mission. Continuous learning and collaboration with others is central to these practices. 

As a result, the educational journey for every individual is unique depending upon their context.

Our role as educators is to create a process where we present models and frameworks in such a way that students can reflect on the utility of the theory in relation to their organizational context and their own practices.

Our aim is to reflect our regional ecosystem within our cohort so that all sectors and business types are represented creating a robust network of regional leaders who can collaborate beyond the boundaries of the program.

What role do the leaders at the top of organizations play in shaping a sustainable future? 

Dr James: Senior leaders shape the organizational culture through their own actions and the way they include and involve others. Senior leaders set the tone by placing responsible leadership at the heart of their strategy and values. They develop their own self-awareness and reflect on their own relationship with environmental, societal and economic issues.

They also reflect on how their organizational strategy contributes a net positive effect on the world and what changes they can make to contribute in a more sustainable way over time. Senior leaders create an environment around them where employees, stakeholders and clients can collaborate in shaping a sustainable future.

How do your programs build leadership competencies/values, such as resilience, critical thinking, self-reflection?

Dr James: Our educational process builds competencies in a number of ways.

  1. We create a psychologically safe space for individual reflection on practice, and opportunities for social learning with others.
  2. The social learning supports critical thinking and reflexivity through enabling dialogue that reflects multiple perspectives on both theory and practice. We facilitate experience of critical reading and writing to build critical thinking skills.
  3. The program content is integrated with the learners’ organizational context so that they apply learning to their own organizational challenges and make innovations and recommendations to further their own organizational goals or practice development goals.
  4. The learners develop a professional portfolio over time enabling them to demonstrate how their learning translates into behavioral changes and the impact of their actions on organizational results.

How can leaders use the UN Sustainability Goals as a framework for professional development? 

Dr Davidson: Tackling the SDG’s can feel daunting as an individual. Our programs offer a unique opportunity to link individual development with the sustainable development goals. 

We do this initially through an exploration of individual values and purpose alongside an exercise to understand the SDG’s to create a tailored, plan to tackle the SDG’s material to each individual.

Linking individual values and a focused approach to tackling the SDG’s provides purpose and understanding for individuals and helps to make sense of how personal and professional priorities link to global issues.

We use a process of moral reflexivity throughout our programs to revisit, revise and evolve each plan. Our approach has been developed in partnership with NetPositive and as well as linking SDG’s to personal development will also enable us to measure the impact of our programs against the SDG’s. 

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