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PSU ENGR 408 - Sustainability leadership

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Sustainability Leadership: Co-creatinga Sustainable FutureMARY A. FERDIGSustainability Leadership Institute, Middlebury, VT, USAABSTRACT Sustainability Leadership tests common assumptions about who counts as a leader andproposes that anyone who takes responsibility for understanding and acting on sustainabilitychallenges qualifies as a ‘sustainability leader,’ whether or not they hold formal leadershippositions. They lead ‘with’ rather than ‘over’ others in ways that account for the long-termviability of complex, interconnected living systems. Paradox, contradiction, and differingviewpoints are recognized as natural characteristics of healthy systems. Sustainability leadersrecognize that the experience of change itself, and the dissonance it creates, fuels new thinking,discoveries, and innovations that can revitalize the health of organizations, communities, and theearth. Finding the balance among and between simultaneous and sometimes contradictorydemands for economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable solutions is a compellingleadership opportunity ultimately grounded in a personal ethic that reaches beyond self-interest.KEY WORDS: Sustainability, leadership, holistic, environment, social responsibility, complexityMy grandson Sam just celebrated his eleventh birthday. He is filled with curiosity,imagination, and anticipation for what life holds, yet I wonder what kind of worldhe will inherit. I am not a geologist, meteorologist, economist, or sociologist, but Ican look around and clearly see for myself the accelerated decline of naturalsystems in the face of increasing human consumption, and I am ever moreaware of the growing economic and social turmoil that holds our planet in itsgrip. Many of us know that something is profoundly wrong, but who among uswill assume responsibility for making things right? Who will lead us into abetter, more sustainable future?If we can, we try to leave something to our children by way of material inheri-tance, hoping our investments will bear fruit and provide a foundation for the nextJournal of Change ManagementVol. 7, No. 1, 25–35, March 2007Correspondance Address: 2419 South 102nd Street, Omaha, NE 68124, USA. Fax: þ1 402 393 5361; Tel.:þ1 402 393 5360; Email: [email protected] Print=1479-1811 Online=07=010025–11 # 2007 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080=14697010701233809generation. Unfortunately, the condition of our most important investment, theearth, is producing declining returns due to our mismanagement and sometimes-outright squander of its rich portfolio.No one would want to lead or invest in a company that destroys or wastes theresources upon which it depends; yet we can see evidence of economic growthpatterns that perpetuate human consumption beyond the earth’s capacity tosustain such consumption. Moreover, while we also have an investment insocial stability throughout the world, we see a growing climate of upheaval asmillions struggle for a life free of poverty, hatred, and oppression.Sustainability leadership reflects an emerging consciousness among people whoare choosing to live their lives and lead their organizations in ways that account fortheir impact on the earth, society, and the health of local and global economies. Itis both an exciting and daunting challenge to change entrenched, often uncon-scious patterns of human behavior that tend to ignore the impact of our wastefulhabits. Yet it is a challenge that we can do something about. Those of us living atthe dawn of the 21st century are called upon to rethink our definition and experi-ence of leadership and address sustainability challenges in immediate, meaningful,and productive ways. Instead of looking to others for guidance and solutions, weare called to look to the leader within ourselves.Three critical and interrelated areas require our thoughtful attention if we are tomove toward a more sustainable future:(1) long-term viability of natural systems and the services they provide for humanexistence;(2) unacceptable social conditions at home and in communities around the world;and(3) local and global economies and the potential they hold to create a modicum ofwealth and prosperity for all inhabitants of the earth.The challenges represented in these three interconnected areas require us torethink the nature of leadership. What must leaders begin to do to affect themagnitude of change – from deeply personal to broadly political – needed toshift the course of human behavior? How can leaders work proactively withothers to sustain a future worthy of our grandchildren and their grandchildren;and who are these leaders?This article describes a particular view of leadership1that challenges commonlyheld assumptions, both conscious and unconscious, about (1) who counts as aleader; (2) the roles of a leader; and (3) where a leader stands in relation tothose he or she leads and to the holistic interconnections that support life. If welook closely at the language in leadership literature (including models thatadvocate open communication, collaborative decision-making, servant leadership,organizational learning and so on) and the language and practices of respectedleaders, we notice that they tend to reflect assumptions that a responsible‘leader’ fulfills a designated role, either assigned or acknowledged, and in thatrole stands apart from, often metaphorically ‘above,’ the people and situationshe or she is leading. From this position of assumed ‘objectivity,’ a responsibleleader observes and makes sense of complex circumstances, determines the26 M. A. Ferdigbest course(s) of action, and uses his or her positional or attributed power to‘manage, ‘unleash,’ ‘inspire,’ ‘influence,’ or otherwise ‘direct’ the behavior ofothers toward an outcome presumed to be most beneficial for everyone involved.This view of leadership can be attributed in part to a deeply held view abouthow the world works based on the mechanistic models of Newtonian science(Wheatley, 2001).Emerging discoveries in the complexity sciences (e.g. quantum physics,chemistry, biology, ecology, and social sciences) point us toward a much differentview of leadership that holds extraordinary potential for a powerful shift in ourcollective consciousness and actions. This view assumes that:(1) anyone can choose to become ‘a leader’ and take responsibility for foster-ing sustainable conditions in workplaces, communities and even on a


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