Why Your Sustainability Leadership is Failing: 10 Suggestions for Achieving Greater Impact

Do you find that you aren’t achieving the results as a sustainability practitioner that you’d like to get?  Do you want to be a more effective leader but don’t know what to change about your approach?  The article, Why You’re Not a Leader, by Mike Myatt was published on Forbes earlier this year and is helpful in providing a framework by which to analyze sustainability leadership skills.

Jennifer Woofter, President of Strategic Sustainability Consulting reflects on how to be an effective sustainability leader.

Jennifer Woofter, President of Strategic Sustainability Consulting reflects on how to be an effective sustainability leader.

Mike’s points are in bold italics followed by suggestions from Jennifer Woofter, the President of Strategic Sustainability Consulting, on how to best to apply it to sustainability.

1. You don’t get results: Real leaders perform – they get the job done – they consistently exceed expectations. No results = no leadership – it’s just that simple.

Can you show the benefits of your sustainability initiatives? If you can’t, you need to answer two questions: 1) Why are my results failing?; and 2) If my initiatives succeed, why can’t I effectively measure and communicate the results?

2. You get results the wrong way: If the only way you can solve the deficit described in point #1 above is through chicanery or skullduggery you’re not a leader. The ends don’t justify the means. If you abuse your influence, don’t treat people well, or confuse manipulation with leadership, you may win a few battles, but you’ll lose the war. Optics over ethics never ends well, and being a jerk doesn’t make you a leader.

Always important, but especially when we talk about sustainability–ethics and transparency are key to long-term success. The significance of these qualities goes beyond the traditional provisions in a code of ethics–are you someone that others can rally behind? Do people trust you? Sustainability touches on a number of sensitive subjects and personal beliefs. Do people feel comfortable sharing their deepest held values with you?

3. You don’t care: Indifference is a characteristic not well suited to leadership. You simply cannot be a leader if you don’t care about those you lead. The real test of any leader is whether or not those they lead are better off for being led by them.

Are you chasing goals for others rather than just focusing on your own glory? For sustainability practitioners, this falls into the purview of keeping your eyes on the long-term prize. Of course, hitting those short-term targets are important, but is it obvious to stakeholders that your real motivation is to create long-term, lasting change?

4. You’re chasing a position and not a higher purpose: If you value self-interest above service beyond self you simply don’t understand the concept of leadership. Leadership is about caring about something beyond yourself, and leading others to a better place – even if it means you take a back seat, or end up with no seat at all. Power often comes with leadership, but it’s not what drives real leaders.

Sure, you may want to be Chief Sustainability Officer for Unilever one day, but that doesn’t mean that every decision you make is with that goal in mind. Similar to #3 above, stakeholders need to see an example of servant leadership in what you say and do.

5. You care more about making promises than keeping them: Leadership isn’t about your rhetoric; it’s about your actions. Leadership might begin with vision casting, but it’s delivering the vision that will ultimately determine your success as a leader.

We can all point to a “leader” in our past who has been long on talk and short on actions. Don’t be that person. Don’t commit to anything that you can’t follow through on. (Even if that means saying no more often!) Especially in sustainability, trust is key and people must know and believe that you are true to your word.

6. You put people in boxes: Stop telling people why they can’t do something and show them how they can. Leaders don’t put people in boxes, it’s their obligation to free them from boxes. True leadership is about helping people reach places they didn’t know they could go.

Sustainability should never sit in a silo. It touches everything and everyone, in every context. True sustainability leaders will find ways for stakeholders (no matter their demographic category) to buy in to some aspect of the organization’s sustainability program. Don’t make this mistake of thinking “if you aren’t for us, you’re against us”.

7. You follow the rules instead of breaking them: Status quo is the great enemy of leadership. Leadership is nothing if not understanding the need for change, and then possessing the ability to deliver it.

The sustainability landscape it changing fast, and real sustainability leaders need to be able to deal with today’s challenges, while understanding and positioning their organizations for tomorrow. The old saying “what got you here won’t get you there” is key– develop those change management skills and apply them often!

8. You churn talent instead of retain it: Real leadership serves as a talent magnet – not a talent repellent. If you can’t acquire talent, can’t develop talent, or can’t retain talent you are not a leader.

This one is a gut check–how many people continue to support you year after year? Are people happy–even eager–to help you when you request assistance? And are those same people continuing to provide support and advice into the future? If you find that you’re churning through people in your network, it’s time to stop and think about your leadership skills.

9. You take credit instead of giving it: True leadership isn’t found seeking the spotlight, but seeking to shine the spotlight on others. The best leaders only use “I” when accepting responsibility for failures. Likewise, they are quick to use “we” when referring to successes.

How do you talk about your sustainability journey? What role do you play in the hero’s journey? (We’re trying really hard to find a pun along the lines of “there is no ‘I’ in sustainability” — but it’s just not working.) Suffice it to say that hoarding the glory isn’t going to make you look good, or help you empower others in the journey.

10. You care about process more than people: But for the people there is no platform. Without the people you have nothing to lead. When you place things above the people you lead you have failed as a leader.

Sustainability systems should institutionalize and embed sustainability throughout an organization. But those systems are only as good as the people who run them, and are only as successful as the people that they touch. Make sure that your focus is on the people in your organization, and build the systems that empower, delight, and motivate them to do better.
Jennifer Woofter is the founder and president of Strategic Sustainability Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in helping rapidly growing mid-size businesses integrate sustainability into their business model, and providing coaching and training to sustainability professionals. She tweets at@jenniferwoofter.