Beyond Unsustainable Leadership

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By Dr Neil Sutherland.


What do we think of when we hear the term ‘Sustainable Leadership’? Perhaps you picture a lush green planet, environmentally friendly practices and cutting-edge products. Perhaps you focus on organisational practices that lead to social good and just outcomes that end power imbalances across society. Perhaps you see it as another managerial buzzword. Indeed, the term is one that is commonly referred to but rarely defined or understood, which has led to a particularly disappointing advancement of sustainability outcomes in recent years.

Concerned with this lack of clarity, Dr Neil Sutherland, Jem Bendell and Richard Little have been working on a Special Issue of the ‘Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal’ to advance thinking about leadership, sustainability and wellbeing. They begin by framing Sustainable Leadership as an ethical process that “has the intention and effect of helping groups of people address shared dilemmas in significant ways”. From here, they are able to offer advice on how organisations may go about re-thinking leadership practice in order to solve contemporary issues.

Central to their work is challenging the idea that leadership is just the responsibility of one heroic and seemingly-superhuman individual. They follow other critical scholars to suggest that, in fact, this reliance on the ‘power of one’ may have been the root cause of unethical and unsustainable practices within the last decades. We do not have to look far to see how this is playing out on our current stage: narcissistic individuals in positions of power who seem more concerned with personal gain than societal good. In other situations, the desire for organisations to pin all of their hopes and dreams on one person may leave that individual wracked with guilt and anxiety when they find themselves incapable of making wide-scale changes alone. For many reasons then, it is clear that this individualistic conception of leadership is not serving us, our organisations or the planet.

But what is an alternative to the call for bigger and bolder individual leaders? The answer, Sutherland, Bendell and Little suggest, is to “shift attention from formal leaders and their influence on followers to the relational processes that produce leadership in a group, organisation or system” (Ospina and Foldy, 2015: 492). Essentially: we need to focus on building collective leadership capacity rather than individual. In doing so, our authors suggest, we can create more efficacious forms of leadership where discussion and deliberation are considered of utmost importance, as every person takes on a level of accountability and responsibility for sustainability practices – whether this be environmental, social or ethical. In reconsidering leadership as something that an organisation collectively does, we will be more able to tackle complex contemporary issues and restore, reform or revolutionise how sustainability is approached.

This move toward more distributed and collective forms of leadership has been gaining increasing attention in recent years, and something that Neil Sutherland has published on previously. Oddly, it is simultaneously a blindingly obvious and simple idea, yet one that it surprisingly difficult to fully grasp in practice. Indeed, adopting a more collective and less centralised approach requires an element of humility on the part of all organisational members, as well as the ability to share ideas and information, and to avoid seeking to dominate others. For some this sounds like a step too far toward an unrealistic utopia, but modern-day research suggests that with just a small tweak to our taken-for-granted assumptions about the hierarchical nature of humanity, we may be able to construct a new generation of organisations that aren’t precariously reliant on sole individuals. 

The Special Issue on ‘Leadership, Sustainability and Well-being’ will be available from September. Please visit for further details.

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