What makes a sustainable leader?

Posted on 28th January 2021 | Thought Leadership

What makes a sustainable leader?

Understanding the fundamental ingredients of good leadership is something that’s a given for executive search providers like Sherrington. However, in recent years, the demand for senior executives who demonstrate the attributes associated with sustainable leadership has been steadily growing in companies’ recruitment priorities, something we’ve seen to an even greater extent in the wake of the ongoing pandemic. In this increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, it is ever more important that organisations recruit leaders who are capable of riding the tides of change effectively, for their teams, for the organisation and for the planet. So, what makes a sustainable leader, and how can we choose the best candidates to develop sustainable organisations for their employers, especially looking beyond to a post-Covid world?

What is sustainable leadership?

Fundamentally, sustainable leaders understand their organisations’ role in tackling shared global challenges such as climate change. This week Larry Fink,  CEO of global PE house Blackrock, said in an interview with the New York Times: 

“I believe that the pandemic has presented such an existential crisis - such a stark reminder of our fragility - that it has driven us to confront the global threat of climate change more forcefully and to consider how, like the pandemic, it will alter our lives." 

A sustainable leader is someone who can plan, from day one, how they can initialise deep, long-lasting reforms. It’s not just about affecting short-term change or improvements whilst they’re in-post, but about aligning their sustainable long-term goals to the business strategy. This dimension of future focus and legacy planning will be vital in bringing about meaningful and lasting change for the benefit of the company, its’ individuals, and for the planet. Crucially sustainable leadership is about systemic thinking that translates into action, through individual leadership by example and inspiring others to galvanise behind a common goal of sustainability.

Script or substance?

Doing ‘greener’ business, and business that is more sustainable, has certainly been talked about much more since the pandemic, but are words being turned into action? UK government has made bold commitments to achieve net zero by 2050, some arguing even this is not enough. However, recent decisions by political leaders such as the investment into a new coal mine in Cumbria and the postponement of the Environment Bill for the second time, have raised questions over how committed they are to this hitting this target. Similarly, in business there is an increasingly obvious gulf between those who are walking the walk, when it comes to taking action on sustainable business, and those who just seem to be talking. 

Going beyond ‘sustainability’

The lockdown effect on travel, both by road and air, by consumers and by businesses, appears to have had a positive impact on carbon emissions. Leaders’ ability to balance the technological advantages of digital working, with the obvious benefits of physical interaction between teams and customers, will have a significant impact on their organisation’s carbon footprint as we emerge from the pandemic in the (hopefully not too) distant future. But the concept of sustainable business goes way beyond simply cutting down mileage. It requires leaders to look at all aspects of their organisational operations, and rather than taking a tactical approach to sustainability, instead embed it holistically within the culture of the business. Organisations whose strategy is led by a noble, guiding purpose – that seeks to address sustainability at its’ core – are most likely to succeed in their sustainability ambitions.

Sustainable value for the many

Sustainable leadership is also about understanding the broad, but nuanced, needs of team members right across the business. The recent phenomena of huge swathes of the population working from home has suited some, but not all employees’ working from home environments are ideal. A sustainable leader is someone who recognises that their staff are people who dealing with their own individual pressures, uncertainties and family dependencies, while trying to do the best job that they can – even if that means they’re working from the kitchen table. This might just as easily apply to the leader themselves.

In this instance, sustainable leaders consider the broader context of wellbeing, supporting a wide spectrum of personal circumstance. They will find ways to support and make the situation work more effectively for the enhancement of all employees, not just those with the most spacious homes and latest technology.

Leaders need to prioritise good mental health for their team and themselves, to avoid burnout. Mental health can have a huge impact on the business in terms of continued optimism, team morale – and therefore productivity and sustainability.

Lead, not dictate

A sustainable leader knows they can’t do everything themselves. They will need to inspire and cultivate a motivated and effective team, to achieve a company’s day-to-day and long-term vision. Each member will have a role in sharing the leader’s responsibilities, whilst also offering them the chance to learn, grow and be rewarded for their efforts. 

A team is only ever as effective as the sum of its’ parts. A leader that recognises an individual’s strengths, weaknesses, optimum working style and mindset, rather than imposing a standardised approach on all, will promote and embrace a team’s diversity. This in turn, will boost engagement levels and provide lasting benefits for the organisation and all team members in the long-run.

Fail to plan, plan to fail

No one could have predicted the global events of the past year. However, by taking the learnings from what has already passed, sustainable leaders will be able to consider the best ways in which to move the business forward, to build resilience ahead of future challenges.

Many businesses ground to a halt in the first UK lockdown from March 2020, as operations adapted, and employees transitioned to working from home. Rapid corporate agility and incredible versatility saw many businesses overcome unprecedented challenges but deviating from previously ‘cast in stone’ strategy requires bold and decisive leadership. As we move through 2021 and beyond, long term strategic planning will be crucial. In order to be sustainable, leaders need to be prepared to be flexible and ready to adjust strategy fast when disruption occurs. Where previously a Plan A and B was sufficient, extensive scenario planning for a myriad of potential situations will give leaders the best opportunity for sustainability of their organisations.

Inspiring sustainable leadership during Covid…

In a locked-down world, it can be hard for leaders to know what to do for the best. Ongoing turbulence brings uncertainty, but the most significant changes often start with the smallest of steps. Taking time to evaluate the organisations’ place in the world and their own role in the organisation, both now and post-pandemic, will help leaders understand what needs to change. Coaching can be a particularly supportive intervention for leaders trying to make sense of what to do when it comes to making their organisations more sustainable.

Sustainable leadership is a marathon, not a sprint, but it starts with recruiting the leaders who have the fundamental skills, styles, knowledge and traits for sustainable leadership. This is why robust assessment and selection is absolutely vital. 

Sherrington supports clients to find, assess, select and nurture the best candidates for sustainable leadership in their organisations. Get in touch to see how we can help.