How to put sustainability at the heart of your career

The key to meaningful change that builds sustainability is leadership. However, the most important discovery was that really effective sustainability leadership is built on three essential strengths. Find out more about what they are and how to build them.

I’ve always been deeply concerned about the climate and environmental issues facing us. And I wanted to be part of making urgently needed change happen - not just through personal actions but through my work as well.

My passion and commitment led me to work at WWF for almost 10 years. But I even though I was working for the world’s leading conservation organisation, the more I learned about the environmental crisis, the more difficult it was to know what I should do, and whether it would make a meaningful difference. I thought this feeling was unique to the environment sector but I soon realised I was part of a growing band of deeply concerned professionals in business, public service and NGOs who felt the same.

Meaningful, enduring change does happen, and it happens all the time. So how come we aspiring sustainability leaders were so bad at it? We started researching change and what makes it happen. We learned new things, we tested new approaches, we learned from our mistakes (and we made quite a few of those).

Our research confirmed what we already believed: the key to meaningful change that builds sustainability is leadership. However, our most important discovery was that really effective sustainability leadership is built on three essential strengths. But before exploring these strengths, I’ll share one of the most important insights I learned about sustainability leadership.

You don’t need to be a sustainability expert to be a sustainability leader - and it doesn’t need to be in your job description either.

When I speak with deeply concerned professionals who want to make change happen, many are asking themselves “who am I to take on the role of a sustainability leader?” They fear that they don’t know enough and that because it’s not in their job description they aren’t ‘allowed’ to lead on sustainability.

Leadership is the act of motivating a group of people to work together to achieve a common goal. Sustainability leadership means that a common goal is shaped by your concern for environmental and human wellbeing. It is a role that can be taken on by anyone who cares enough to do it. The world needs many, many more people - people like you - to step into sustainability leadership.

There’s plenty of knowledge and expertise about sustainability in the world. The problem isn’t that we don’t know how to achieve sustainability. The problem is that expertise is too often outside the places where decisions are made, unable to get in. That is why we need sustainability leaders - people who recognise that sustainability expertise is needed, get sustainability on the agenda, include it in discussions, champion its importance, and open doors to let it in. They don’t know all the answers but they’re asking the right questions and they bring the answers into their organisations - whether they work in business, public service or NGOs.

If you want to step into sustainability leadership but are still feeling uncertain, you could spend endless hours reading about sustainability and what you should do. But our Sustainability Leader’s Kitbag means you don’t have to. We have distilled 30 years of sustainability leadership expertise into 9 key insights and ideas. These will get you started and provide strong roots from which to build the strengths you’ll need…

The three essential strengths of effective sustainable leadership

1. The confidence to hold true to the fact we are part of nature 

Although you don't need to be a sustainability expert to lead change for sustainability, our research found there are three strengths that are essential to be truly effective. Here they are: 

While the environmental issues that make our society profoundly unsustainable are multifaceted and complex, their origin lies in one simple thing - humans are part of nature but we don’t feel like we are - so we don’t act like we are.

What people feel is shaped far more by our experiences than our knowledge. In our industrialised societies it’s possible to live our entire lives only every experiencing three illusions our culture creates:

• First, that humans are separate from (and superior to) the rest of nature;

• Second, we can control and use nature for our own purposes and, 

• Third, that there are no serious consequences of doing so.

Even when we know none of this is true, our ability to think sustainably is seriously undermined by the influence of these illusions.

I developed my confidence to hold true to the fact we are part of nature in a society that would have us believe we are not, by actively experiencing my connection with nature - so I actually felt it rather than just knowing it.

The most effective way to experience this connection is by spending time in wild natural places and doing practices that engage us deeply with nature.  

It is a profoundly powerful experience. Once you have felt this connection it can never be un-felt. The illusions our culture creates loosen their grip on you, and you can think from an entirely new perspective.

And the voice inside that says “yeah, but that will never happen” whenever you imagine new and better ways to do things - which is actually the voice of our culture protecting itself from challenge and change - no longer speaks to you.

I first experienced this in 2010 on a Natural Change Sustainability Leadership Retreat. It was such a profoundly powerful experience and so transformed my sustainability leadership that I am still using these practices today and I’m now a retreat leader enabling others to experience this too.

2. The capacity to engage not just our heads but also our hearts

Our education system privileges logic and rational analysis above all else. Most sustainability leadership programmes do the same, leaving participants to solve the most complex problems humanity has ever faced without using all the tools available to them.

The most effective, impactful leadership comes from combining our logic and reason with our emotional intelligence, creativity, instinct and imagination. The good news is that the practices that enable us to feel our connection with nature also strengthen our creativity, imagination and problem-solving abilities.

When we spend three days or more in wild natural places, the pattern of neurological activity in our brains changes - extended time outdoors literally makes us think differently. Scientists studying this have found that it makes us nearly 50% better at creative problem-solving.

It’s rare to find professional sustainability leadership programmes that incorporate these research findings into their programme design. Shockingly, some of the most high profile sustainability leadership programmes don’t even mention nature in their course outlines let alone actually set foot in it.

Cutting ourselves off from nature has not only caused our current sustainability crisis, but it is also undermining our ability to solve the problems this creates.

3. The support of trusted companions

It is a painful truth that sustainability leadership is often a lonely place. Putting sustainability on the agenda, bringing it up in discussions and championing its importance can be exhausting and dispiriting if you are the only one doing it.  

As professionals, we all need a trusted network of peers who share our values; who can offer us support and whom we can support in return. This is never more true than in sustainability leadership where the going is often tough and the way forward often unclear.

Through Natural Change I always expected to meet a group of like-minded peers with whom I could have the professional conversations I’d always wanted. I never expected the extraordinary strength and depth of the peer network that this type of leadership programme created. Over a decade on from my first retreat the people I met are still my most trusted and most powerful sources of support in my sustainability leadership work.

With so many professionals trying to ‘find their tribe’ and connect with others who care as much as they do, we’re now establishing the Sustainability Leadership Network. A community of professionals who want to have a greater positive impact, sooner – by developing strong relationships, sharing knowledge and supporting each other. If this is the sustainability leadership network you have been looking for, find out more.

Remember that I explained how we tried and tested new approaches to tackling the environmental and social problems facing the world when I worked at WWF?

We wanted a leadership programme that centred on the three essential strengths our research had identified. We couldn’t find one anywhere so we developed the Natural Change Sustainability Leadership Programme.

Over a decade later we have supported hundreds of professionals to put sustainability leadership at the heart of their careers and their professional lives. 

We run retreats in the spring and autumn of each year at the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the Scottish Highlands. If you would like to experience the transformative potential of the living world, find out more.