Unpacking sustainability leadership in light of the upcoming UN Summit – S U M A S

UN Secretary-General António Guterres is convening a summit to commence on the 21st of September 2019 in order to hold world leaders accountable to the goals set out in the Paris agreement and to raise collective ambition by increasing climate action goals. Guterres is calling on attending leaders to demonstrate climate action leadership by only giving leaders a platform to speak if they presented plans in line with the IPCC 1.5 °C report.

Meanwhile 16-year old climate activist Greta Thurnberg, who is also attending the summit, arrived in New York on the 28th of August, after a two-week journey on a carbon-free sailing boat. Adamant that she would not make the journey via jet fuel guzzling plane, Greta used the opportunity to display a different, but perhaps far more effective take on sustainable leadership. One that shows action speaking louder than speaking platforms.


The true definition of Sustainability leadership


Mary A. Ferdig offers a widely recognised description of sustainability leadership, often cited in scholarly works.

“Anyone who takes responsibility for understanding and acting upon complex sustainability challenges qualifies as a ‘sustainability leader’ whether or not they hold a formal leadership position or acknowledged political and social-economic influence.”

Greta Thurnberg, and many other youths, who aren’t yet old enough to own cars let alone businesses, are already displaying this understanding of sustainability leadership in the actions they’re taking toward speaking up for climate change.


The youth and sustainable leadership


The latter half of Mary A. Ferdig’s definition speaks to why the youth are so effective in their actions and also speaks to what effective world leaders will incorporate should they wish to be effective sustainable leaders. Namely that; ”rather than providing all of the answers, sustainability leaders create opportunities for people to come together and generate their own answers – to explore, learn, and devise a realistic course of action to address sustainability challenges.”

Many youths are already holding our leaders accountable to their plans and actions thus far. Take the group of youths who sued the American government for failing to protect them from the onset of climate change or the Parkland School shooting survivors in Florida, who in a matter of days, mobilised millions of supporters, thanks to Twitter, to march in protest of urgent need for gun control policies. Their action saw the first real gun legislation implemented in years.

Their drawing mass attention to the unsolved problems seems to be what sets change in motion, rather than arriving on a podium, answers in hand.  By showing acknowledgement of value shifts with the vulnerability of not having all the answers inspires communities to connect and manifest change, which is by all accounts far more successful than playing the fear based denial card favoured by some world leaders.

Greta Thurnberg didn’t stand up at the World Economic Forum and tell business leaders the globe over how to optimise their actions to solve the entire climate crisis. She stood up and spoke openly about the fearful reality of not attempting to solve the crisis. She shared her fears. Fears that echoed collective truth and inspired the desire to be part of alleviating that fear.


What is needed from a sustainable leader?

Successful sustainability leadership can be carried out with the following approaches:

  • Leading with society and the environment in mind
  • Being driven by a keenness to learn, challenge and improve current situations
  • Inspiring cooperation between sectors and cultures
  • Setting the self aside and instead focusing on forging connections within communities to enhance their co-creation and co-production
  • Casting light on as yet unanswered, but vitally important questions.
  • Open-mindedness and integrity


How businesses and communities will benefit from sustainable leaders

Leaders who have faced and overcome adversity, or who, at the very least have experienced living in parts of the world where differing economic backgrounds are driving factors, are far more likely to develop socially and environmentally inclusive practices. This type of leadership paves the way for the upliftment and integration of communities. According to Global Citizen, a movement of engaged citizens who are using their collective voice to end extreme poverty, leaders with emotional ties and ethical responsibility are a high contributing factor to ending poverty by 2030.

The sustainable leadership displayed by the youths taking action, whether they hold political or social influence or not, didn’t necessarily come about because of sustainability leadership or environmental education.

Being inhabitants of this planet facing the climate threat is qualification enough to fight, what is at the heart of all things, a human rights threat.

But integrating their calls for collective social, business and political change is a complex issue. Individuals who hold a strong education in business sustainability management will be key assets in all future businesses.

Education in sustainability management is highly beneficial in preparing an individual emotionally in taking on the responsibility of navigating corporate and social change. In order to affect any meaningful change, leaders will need to view the systems of business and society as interlocking ecosystems within our environment.

The SUMAS Sustainability Management Business School of Switzerland aims at empowering students with the confidence to carry out this responsibility and make the decisions required to right the collective course. The programs focus on delivering sound business knowledge and an intrinsic understanding of sustainable development in an innovative way.


Why we need sustainable leadership

If the leadership of the world’s governments and organization thus far has shown us anything, it is that the advancement of a singular agenda without consideration of the environment that it transpires in is in and of itself an unsustainable pursuit.

We cannot be extricated from the societies we cohabit with or the environments we depend on. Therefor no achievement that comes about at the demise of any civilisation, culture or habitat can truly be considered an achievement.

The climate crisis no longer allows for leeway in this or any disregard of the acceptance of total interconnectedness.

Given this context, leaders of businesses, organisations or governments can no longer be considered leaders if they operate outside of the framework of sustainability.

Leadership without a focus on sustainability is not leadership at all.

If you are interested in using education to further your agenda of becoming a sustainability leader, take a look at the various programs that we offer.


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