How to Become a Sustainability Leader

Three lessons leaders need to know in order to advance their ideas.

As sustainability evolves, leaders in the field will need new skills in order to advance their ideas. The University of Cambridge's Programme for Sustainability Leadership recently published The State of Sustainability Leadership in 2011, which describes seven attributes sustainability leaders should possess:

  • Systematic interdisciplinary understanding;
  • Emotional intelligence and a caring attitude;
  • Possesses values that shapes culture;
  • A strong vision for making a difference;
  • An inclusive style that engenders trust;
  • A willingness to innovate and be radical, and;
  • A long-term perspective on impacts.
These traits are especially important in the public sector, given the difficulty in managing public awareness and turning that awareness into individual action. A successful leader today responds to this challenge by taking a different approach to implementing policies. Three valuable lessons can be learned from today's sustainability leader in regards to how to win support from internal and external stakeholders.

The first lesson is that sustainability comes down to the individual. Because sustainability can only be achieved through personal actions, individuals must be the focus of education and change. President John F. Kennedy's famous quote about public service applies equally well to sustainability: "One person can make a difference, and everyone should try."

San Francisco has achieved an unprecedented landfill diversion rate of 77 percent by focusing on households one at a time. San Francisco reached this number through a sharp focus on individuals: Education teams went door-to-door answering questions; the city's SF Environment
sustainability team made extensive use of social media; and anyone not recycling the right way was likely to receive a note on their bins from their collection crew about what they should be doing instead.

This type of focused education enables educators to truly listen to stakeholders and form relationships. Over time, engaging stakeholders this way enables educators to directly understand possible objections and prepare ways to overcome them by personalizing the message and increasing its resonance. According to management expert Daniel Goleman, "resonance amplifies and prolongs the emotional impact" of leaders' messages.

The second lesson is that simply broadcasting a message is no longer an effective means for achieving lasting public impressions and results. Communication is no longer about what you want to say -- it is about what the listener wants to hear. Broadcasting may be a necessary step in the arc from awareness to action, but it cannot be the only one.

Utility-sponsored energy efficiency programs, also known as "demand-side management" programs, are an example of this. In these programs, ads are only a first step. The ads grab viewers' attention. Take the Smart Ideas program in Philadelphia by Exelon Corporation's PECO electric utility. Their ads depict various energy-hungry appliances as something out of Pixar's Monster's Inc.
But these ads are only a call to action. The true education takes place through a combination of Web-based material and in-person follow-up.

A third lesson is that sustainability in the U.S. is still evolving. One outcome of this is that there is no consensus on the "right" role for government in sustainability education. Diverse states such as California, Minnesota and Rhode Island have successfully implemented green building codes. These efforts will ultimately trickle sustainability concepts down to consumers and facilities owners in a very real way. On the other hand, in every session since 2007, New York state legislators have failed to pass the Environmental Sustainability Education Act. This bill would require statewide sustainability curriculum for public primary and secondary schools, similar to those used in countries like the United Kingdom and Australia.

Innovation is in demand across the private and public sectors. Government sustainability leaders are delivering it -- with real results -- using a new style of management and a fresh approach to driving change.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.