Becoming Sustainable Leaders with Purpose

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” - Greek Proverb (Anon.)

With April and World Earth Day on the 22nd, comes a renewed global awareness and recommitment of resources and efforts by businesses and their leaders to promote environmental sustainability and preservation. While I applaud that practice, I think that protecting the environment, as a natural consequence of effective leadership and the commitment every leader takes to serve the common good, is something that should be constantly minded; consistently addressed.

This is the hallmark of sustainable leadership, the practice of prioritising environmental, societal, and long-term sustainable development goals into our thoughts and actions; into our policies and programmes, as leaders of various organisations and teams. It is leadership carefully balanced between delivering on established short-term and long-term business goals, on one side, and serving in the best interests of the environment and society, on the other. All the while, motivating our teams to serve in a mirrored way that maintains financial performance and benefits society and the environment.

On a global scale, recent events point to sustainable leadership being seemingly difficult to achieve. At the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), hosted in Glasgow, last October and November, global leaders met to review, discuss, and create environmental programmes, all designed to help save the planet.

Faced with the fact that too many nations had still fallen short in delivering on commitments given at the Paris Summit in 2015, there was optimism that the Glasgow meeting would be different. That it would be better. Despite one of the major outcomes being the initiation of the Glasgow Climate Pact, agreed to by all the delegates present, the Conference was universally held to be severely lacking in actually implementing the transformational action that our planet desperately needs. At the end of the Summit, there was no consensus on a way forward to keep our planet from more than doubling the 1.5 degree threshold we teeter on.

There was no decisive, agreed upon plan of attack to cut global emissions by 45% by the end of this decade. In an ironic twist of fate, according to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the climate pledges from the Summit would actually result in a 14% increase in emissions by 2030.

A Most Terrifying Prospect
So not only could global leaders not agree, they also could not see a way to change the course on their own pursuits. Demonstrating an almost un-21st Century leader like rigidity in thinking. Not surprisingly, in countries around the world, thousands of people rallied to the streets – pleading, protesting, and begging their leaders to make good on the promises they made; to rethink the courses they were setting.

It’s no surprise that many other activists began advocating radicalism after questioning the effectiveness of these so-called global summits. But it should not have to come to radicalism. Sustainable leadership must and could be achieved without duress.

Sustainable Leadership is Excellent Leadership
We have looked at how and why leadership must adapt. We have also discussed the importance of leadership, not just in business and community, but as a most fundamental aspect of the human condition. Sustainable leadership, complex as it may be, is no different. In averting this existential threat, whether we lead large organisations or smaller ones; whether we operate in massive complexes or from our home offices, our impact as sustainable leaders is invaluable.

Our commitment to our environment’s protection, to protecting all life on this Earth, and to ensuring that there is a world of tomorrow, has to be the definitive chapter in any story of leadership excellence. It is story that we have a critical role in telling and one that we can perform even better.

Be Mindful
Let’s start with the obvious. There are many social and environmental news sources available – both authentic and otherwise. Finding reputable sources for information is one thing (and simple enough once the effort is made), however, that is only half of the battle.

Amid all this noise, it can be hard for us to focus on the facts that are true and still focus on the myriad other priorities we have on our plates. And too often, with all this going on, many of us sacrifice sustainable leadership in favour of other pursuits. We wrongfully reason that it is the least important aspect of our role and treat it as such.

This is where mindfulness comes in. As leaders, we must be aware of the responsibility we have to serve to the best of our capabilities. We don’t just serve organisations, stakeholders, employees and our customers. We serve them all AND we serve the planet. We serve the future. And must continue to be mindful in the present so that we don’t jeopardise the prospects of generations yet to come.

One way that we can be more mindful is that, when we seek out informed opinions, we also try to contextualise the local issues as well as the global. Start by examining the environmental impacts that our organisations may have in whatever products or services we provide. Examine the opportunities and threats that that we face for innovation and creativity in devising sustainable, effective environmental solutions.

In short, as we integrate sustainable leadership as part of our overall leadership strategy and style, we must be mindful of the role that a sustainable leader plays in seeking profits, serving people, and safeguarding the planet.

Set Goals
An old business adage states, “What gets measured, gets done.” Basically, drawing attention to the fact that when we set goals for ourselves, and monitor our progress in pursuing them, we tend to achieve them. When we become an official signatory of the United Nations Principles for Responsible Banking, Republic Financial Holdings Limited, launched a wide scale initiative to embed sustainability across all our business areas. As a socially responsible bank, we understood that we could have the greatest, most meaningful, and sustainable contribution through a financing commitment or lending goal in every market we serve. We also resolved to explore potential opportunities to make the most impact in contributing to a sustainable world.

Then we set ourselves some more goals. We set about to lend, invest and arrange up to US $200 million by 2025 towards activities that reduce the impact of climate change and create environmental solutions in collaboration with our clients. We reached out to communities to incentivise and increase cleaner energy technology, usage, and improve the rate in energy efficiency.

Now, I’m not saying that this is possible for every team. We each will have different goals with different levels of commitment. And that’s ok. What matters most is that we, as leaders, continue to set ourselves realistic, achievable goals, attain them, and then use those successes as a launch pad to do even the future, for the future.

Lead by example, Learn by practice
As we all know, setting goals is one thing, achieving them is another. The first step to doing this is taking responsibility for the goals that we set ourselves. A goal has to be believed in before it is achieved, after all.

Let’s take a good long look at our organisations. As sustainable leaders, what are some of the ways that we can hold ourselves responsible for our jobs, our actions, and our organisations? What are some of the ways that we must hold others accountable to likewise lead by example in carrying out our roles?

Here are few questions to ask ourselves:

  • What are some ways that we can operate with reduced waste?
  • How can we increase operating efficiency?
  • How can we reduce our collective carbon footprint?
  • How can we waste less water?
  • How can use less paper, electricity, and natural resources?

The list goes on but so must our enthusiasm to answer those items correctly.

Sustainable leadership is about making those continuous improvements that will benefit both the organisation and the planet. It is also about living by the codes we expect others to also live by. So, we shouldn’t, as leaders, simply mandate that our teams hold themselves accountable. We must also hold ourselves accountable, taking the right actions and improving ourselves in the way we serve.

Education plays a huge role here in encouraging more of today’s leaders to care more and do more for society and the environment. It is also fundamental in creating the next generation of leaders who are even more willing to do something positive and incorporate good governance and environmental conscientiousness into business.

It might sound tricky. But all it takes is us, doing the right thing at every step of the way, and at every opportunity. Let’s call it “environmental integrity”. We demonstrate this and others will follow.

One Planet; One People
“If working apart, we are a force powerful enough to destabilize our planet, surely working together we are powerful enough to save it.” - Sir David Attenborough

Sustainable leadership is a complex topic, and, as we have seen, actually putting sustainable leadership into practice is even more complicated. Complicated but not impossible. We just looked at three ways that more of us can proactively get involved in changing the narrative of sustainable leadership, if only on an individual or personal level.

But everything starts with a start.

Be mindful. Set Goals. Lead by Example; Learn by Example.

We all have a huge task ahead of us in saving our planet and protecting our future. Our history, as a species, is defined by triumph in the face of adversity. With the existential crises we face, it seems as if we are once again being put to the test.

A test where failure is not an option. Honestly, I don’t believe we have it in us to fail. However, we cannot take it for granted that the other person will do the right thing. We must commit to being sustainable leaders, all across the board, if we are to succeed.

What about you? What are some of the ways you are channelling or promoting sustainable leadership in your teams? Let us know in the comments.

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