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.

Serving yourself: value self-creation in health care service

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By Dr Fiona Spotswood

Yesterday, March 1st, the Bristol Leadership and Change Centre at UWE held the first seminar of 2017. Our external speaker was Singaporean Nadia Zainuddin, who is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales and is a member of the university’s Centre for Research in Socially Responsible Marketing. With a PhD in social marketing and a background as one of the leading thinkers in responsible and social change marketing in the region, her research interests lie predominantly in the area of health services, with a specialised focus on customer value creation.

The presentation Nadia shared was based on a paper she published in Services Marketing last year; “Serving yourself: value self-creation in health care service”. Her quantitative study rigorously explored the nature of self-service health screening, with a focus on bowel-screening; a home-kit type of screening with a high emphasis on customer input. Her findings, based on structural equation modelling, demonstrate that consumers can self-create value, leading to desired outcomes of satisfaction with the consumption experience and behavioural intentions to engage with the self-service again in the future.

Nadia explained the significance of her work for social marketing; that a key role of the discipline is to create conditions in which desirable behaviours are voluntarily undertaken. This prompted an interested debate in the seminar about the different roles of social marketing in the behaviour change context; as a mechanism for persuading and motivating, and as a mechanism for creating and shaping practices. These approaches are both important parts of the behaviour change and social change picture.

Further discussion from an enthusiastic audience centred on the applicability of the self-value model to complex practices like ‘commuting’, where the layers of value that could relate to audience participation are also entangled with infrastructures, institutions, skills and spatial and temporal sequencing as well as attitudes and beliefs. This leads me to wonder about the theoretical implications of the positioning of value – as something within a particular practice, or something held by the actors themselves.

The Bristol Leadership and Change Centre thanks Nadia for her presentation and wishes her best of luck in the next few months as she conducts further research in this are while on sabbatical in Glasgow. If you are interested in taking part in the BLCC seminar series – as a speaker or delegate – please get in touch at


Spirituality in a Challenging World

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Hi all,

Please see the link below for more information on a conference being held by the British Association for the Study of Spirituality at Ashridge on May 19-21 on Spirituality in a Challenging World.

The conference includes keynote addresses and parallel-session papers on both religious and secular concepts of spirituality as well as its role in organizational practices, health and well-being, and leadership.

Re-imagining Learning Spaces Conference 2013

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By Dr Harriet Shortt


Last week I went to the second Re-imagining Learning Spaces Conference, at the University of South Wales. This was a great one-day FREE! conference organised by The Learning Spaces Pedagogic Research Group, chaired by Dr Bela Arora, and IBI Nightingale, represented by Head of Research and Development, Caroline Paradise. Despite being a rainy and grey day in South Wales (and boy did it rain!), this was an enlightening and energetic day! There was a great mix of academic staff from all over the UK, architects, facilities professionals, librarians, designers and space consultants – which made for some lively and varied group discussions.

The day started with a warm and enthusiastic welcome from Dr Bela Arora, who highlighted the important connections we should be making between facilities, space and the aesthetics of our universities, the student voice, innovative teaching, well-being and the student experience.

Next, we enjoyed a fascinating keynote from Dr Mark Moss at the University of Northumbria. Mark’s work – in the school of psychology – explores smell and the environmental application of aromas. Apart from learning a new word – ‘anosmics: people who can’t smell!’ – I thought Mark’s work was really thought provoking…and apart from Prof Sam Warren and Dr Kat Riach’s ESRC funded ‘smell’ project, Mark is one of the few people who I have heard talk about detailed research into the significance of smell in the workplace, learning space or indeed any space! He talked about scientific trials exploring the smell of rosemary and its impact on long-term memory…other work that examined the relationship between the smell of peppermint and exercise, smells when we go clubbing, smells when we go shopping, and using the scent of lavender in toilets in the workplace in Japan to enable people to ‘rest more successfully’!

Our small group discussions then raised some key issues, where we debated ‘what are the characteristics of the ideal learning environment?’…lots came out around facilitating teaching and learning relationships, ownership, togetherness, technology…and that the little things matter!

After lunch we had a great tour of the award-winning Students’ Union building at the University of South Wales – we all took lots of pictures, asked loads of questions and along the way debated how various spaces would work at our own universities, what wouldn’t work, what spaces could be used differently, how and why  acoustics are really important and although we talk about togetherness and community…what does it really mean and does it really work?

Our second keynote was from Prof. Alexi Marmot at UCL. Alexi discussed design and the management of innovative learning spaces and covered broad ground in this area, including technology, using an Action Research approach to exploring this emerging topic in more detail, and’ future proofing’ the space in our institutions.

An important part of the day was the Student Panel Discussion, where we heard from a number of students across the university and how they felt about their teaching and learning spaces. This was an insightful session where we heard about where students work most effectively, what times of the day they worked and again…how the little things mattered to them too!

Finally we heard from the Director-General of the Department of Education and Skills, Welsh Government, the Programme Director for 21st Century Schools, Welsh Assembly Government, Caroline Paradise at IBI Nightingale and the Site Librarian of the award-winning Trevithick Library at Cardiff University. For me, this last session drew together some important threads – we need to make sure that we talk to those in across the education sector and learn from them; that we should identify the ‘space champions’ in our institutions and work with them during change management process; that pre and post occupancy research is vital…and once we ‘move in’ to our spaces, that’s not the end – as Alexi Marmot said, that’s just the start and the academic community needs to continually work together to ensure that spaces and places are always working well for those that inhabit them!

Thanks to everyone involved in this conference – and I’m looking forward to Re-imagining Learning Spaces, 2014!

Harriet Shortt

P.S. Apologies for the repeat post for those that follow my personal blog: …I thought this one was worth sharing here too 🙂