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Why you don’t have to be a superhero to be a sustainable leader

Article by Max Jungmann

Photo created by Freepik

When you look up the term “leadership”, the first thing most search engines will show is quite outdated definitions that are often based on the idea that leaders are people who influence others. Or you may find articles on career advice that are supposed to help you become a CEO. Browsing through definitions and articles, you may get the feeling that leadership is more about hierarchies and titles than anything else. Looking at the stories of well-known business executives, you may even think that some people are just born to be leaders. Or in response to external prompts or outside intervention they transform their lives with superhero powers much in the same ways as the superheroes we see in the comics.

If we look further into the evolution of leadership theories, the understanding of leaders as superheroes is not far-fetched at all. First significant theories evolved in the 1840s and were actually called “Great Man”, based on the belief that some people – or more pointedly, some men – are just born leaders and our main priority should be to identify them and give them the power they deserve. While leadership theories evolved and became more behavior-focused in the 1940s and 50s, situational in the 1960s and much more complex in the age of so-called new leadership in the 1990s and 2000s, many old stereotypes and beliefs about leadership characteristics still persist. Quite frequently, those who have achieved great financial success are called leaders, independent of their actual leadership style or personal contribution to their financial success.

But if we look at studies on leadership skills, we realize that leadership requires a combination of different mind- and skill sets, especially in terms of emotional and social intelligence. As Daniel Goleman writes in the Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership: “Every businessperson knows a story about a highly intelligent, highly skilled executive who was promoted into a leadership position only to fail at the job. And they also know a story about someone with solid – but not extraordinary – intellectual abilities and technical skills who was promoted into a similar position and then soared.” How people in leadership positions perform, therefore, has less to do with their intelligence or traditional skill sets, than with their emotional and social intelligence, the context they find themselves in and the people they engage with.

Moreover, leadership is not limited to the professional world. Everyone has the chance to be a leader. And it doesn’t matter who you are, where you are or what you are doing. It is about how you do it. Do you use your own energy in a way that yourself, other people, and entire organizations have the best opportunity to shine? Now and in the future? Here and everywhere in the world? Then you are not just a leader – you are a sustainable leader. Sustainable leadership means that we apply to our daily lives the principle of sustainability, as defined in the Brundtland Report from 1987 (“meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”). If executed well, this entails that we do well for ourselves and the planet at the same time. We contribute to our own well-being, to those around us, and to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But how does that work in practice?

How to be a sustainable leader

A sustainable leader is someone who manages their own energy in a way that they can best support others, and as such creates the best results for the organization they are in and the planet we all live on. Therefore, it has three dimensions: the personal, interpersonal, and organizational.

Personal Dimension: Managing our own resources in a sustainable way is the foundation of everything we do. It is mostly about how we use our time and energy in the smartest way possible. This includes doing the right things and doing things right. Being mindful of when we do which tasks. Scheduling sessions for deep work at times when we know that we can be most productive and accounting enough time for shallow work, for instance responding to e-mails, when we have trouble focusing. It means that we make the best of the variety of productivity tools that exist, such as the pomodoro technique or inbox zero. In this dimension, we try to adopt a growth mindset, in which we embrace innovation, believe in our own capabilities, and are open to taking risks. We aim to live a more mindful, healthier life and invest in recreation and time with loved ones to ensure we have the same or higher levels of energy the next day and the day after. And, most importantly, it means that we lead by example. That we practice what we ask others to do. To be credible, authentic, and inspiring.

Interpersonal Dimension: The core component of sustainable leadership focuses on empowering others so that they can be the best version of themselves. To do so, it requires high levels of emotional and social intelligence so that we can manage our own emotions and anticipate how the emotions of others may affect their behavior. Consequently, a sustainable leader has strong communication skills, training and experience in conflict resolution, negotiation, nonviolent communication, and other essential components of leadership. Moreover, a sustainable leader seeks to treat everyone the same way, strives to be professional in all situations, and manages personal sympathies in a way that they don’t influence how they treat others in the professional world. Therefore, a sustainable leader is open and transparent, able to give constructive feedback, and knows how to navigate different social, economic, and cultural environments to ensure those around them receive praise when they need to hear it and constructive criticism when it is needed.

Organizational Dimension: The organizational dimension, which is often also called sustainable management, helps us to measure progress and set the right institutional framework to align organizations with the principles of sustainability and sustainable leadership. This dimension entails a variety of tools: the proper strategies and action plans to integrate sustainability into the core business strategy; the right management system (e.g. a lean or agile framework); and, competence and skills monitoring (in order to identify competence and skills gaps and offer proper training) as well as management and actions towards building a sustainable organizational culture. It is important to cultivate an environment in which everyone feels respected and appreciated, where enough safe spaces exist to share how team members are feeling, and where feedback is normalized and not something people are anxious about. The organizational dimension of sustainable leadership connects the dots between each initiative and thus helps to measure and report on how a business contributes to the SDGs.

Sustainable leadership weaves together these three dimensions, empowering people in business, their personal lives and elsewhere. These dimensions offer guidance on how to navigate toward more balanced practices that support people and the planet. Anyone can be a more sustainable leader if put in the right context and given the right tools. Sustainable leadership is not a superpower, it is a recurring choice and journey.

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