A ten-point manifesto for sustainability leadership development: #2

I’ve recently published a number of articles about sustainability leadership. Most of them have been critical of current approaches. They share my opinion that many sustainability leadership development programmes are a part of the problems they should be trying to solve.

Eventually, my sniping from the sidelines drew some attention! Several people asked what my version of sustainability leadership development looks like, if all these others are such a problem? Step out of the grandstand and onto the pitch! And rightly so.

This manifesto is published over two articles. It describes what I believe are ten essential elements of truly effective sustainability leadership development programmes.

This second article explores points six to ten and provides a summary check-list. Read the first part here ...

SIX: Tribe

Evidence from my own work reveals that there are two non-negotiable, absolutely essential factors that make my programmes successful. One is unmediated experiences of wild nature. The other is the group of people who share these experiences together.

The wild experience is the catalyst but the group is the crucible where sense is made of that experience - and transformed into action.

The catalyst can make change happen on its own but it tends to be short-lived, diminishing over time. We’ve all had those experiences - big, exciting, inspiring sudden change with lots of commitments and promises… that often rapidly ebb away.

The group staunches and reverses this outflow, maintaining and often increasing momentum. Keeping the tribe’s support network in place makes transformative, long-term change happen.

Some of my groups are still woven together 20 years on, still in regular contact. As time has passed they have ebbed and flowed, each tide getting higher. Some of the changes they have led - in some cases on a national scale - have been remarkable. They have only happened because of the mutual support of their tribe.

Building a community should be part of any sustainability leadership programme.


Our cultural relationship to time is one of the single greatest barriers to a sustainable future. We want every idea - regardless of how amazing or beautiful - to fit onto a “two-pager”. We want an “executive summary”, “bullet points”, an “elevator pitch”.

Imagine only giving Michelangelo permission to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel if he could present his idea first. In one sentence. During an elevator ride.

Our obsession with brevity has diminished our world. We use time to set a limit on possibility and in doing so have reduced the quality of, well, everything.

The same is true of sustainability leadership development. We want to change the world but we only want to do it with a two-page proposal that leads to a two-day workshop. We need longer programmes. Much longer.

Enduring organisational and social change cannot be achieved quickly. There are no short-cuts. At what point does it become worth investing adequate time in our own survival? 

Sustainability leadership development needs to take the time it deserves.

EIGHT: Counter-culture

The industrial growth economy which dominates our world is directly at odds with our ecology. As the system theorist Kenneth Boulding said,’if you believe in infinite growth in a finite system, you're either mad… or an economist.’ Sustainability programmes that do not address this impasse make it worse. 

There has to be a brave and honest analysis of our present industrial culture and the deeply buried, but largely impossible assumptions on which it is based. Herman Daly described these assumptions as ‘fallacies of misplaced concreteness’. We believe they are solid, but they just aren’t. 

Think “survival of fittest” (which Darwin never once wrote), competition makes the most efficient use of resources (but is only possible through cooperation); the "selfish gene" (which can only exists in collaboration with other genes); "trickle-down" economics (material wealth trickles up); humans are a superior and special species (but the only one undermining their own habitats to the point of ecocide); Gross Domestic Product (which measures negative personal and social impacts as positive economic benefit)… and so on. And indeed on.

Our present world is built on these fallacies and leaders must become critically aware of them, if we are to live sustainably. This is not about analysing ecological issues as such, or problem solving. It’s about fundamentally changing the way we perceive the world around us. My friend Sam Graham describes this process as ‘metaphysical re-engineering’ - changing the way we understand our reality. It’s not as hard or as scary as it sounds. It’s liberating.

Sustainability leadership development should challenge the assumptions that our current unsustainable society is built on. It must counter our industrial growth culture and lead the way to ecologically possible alternatives.

NINE: Process

Leadership guru Margaret Wheatley says that if you set the room up right at the start of a leadership workshop, 60% of your work as a facilitator is done.

This is because the process the group goes through is more important than any prescribed goal. Anyone who’s ever convened a group knows that the seating arrangement has a profound impact on the process. 

If the process is sound, the goal will take care of itself. Often turning out far more helpful than expected.

For leaders, process is all about relationships and this is where the emphasis should be. Leaders must understand and be able to work with relationship in every sphere: personal, social and ecological.

This means that a leadership development process with predefined outcomes or a set model of change will ultimately fail. In the sustainability context, outcomes can only emerge. Leaders have to muster immense courage and faith. They have to trust the process.

Sustainability leadership development should be process focussed, prioritising relationships over prescribed outcomes.

Ten: Grace

Ultimately, we just don’t know the half of it. We do not know how to lead our way into a sustainable future. We have to work it out as we go. If the ideas, concepts and structures to do this already existed, we would simply apply them. But they do not exist. Instead, we must explore deeper into the unknown - together and from a position of humility. 

Sustainability leadership development should help leaders work with humility to find their own personal grace.

Sustainability Leadership Development Check-list

Consider this check-list before either commissioning a sustainability leadership development programme for others, or participating in one yourself. If you find a programme that gets a ‘yes’ in every row, then - in my opinion  - you’re onto a good thing!

ComplexityDoes the programme include ecological literacy and systems thinking?
EmbodimentDoes the programme include prolonged time spent outdoors in wild places?
AdventureIs there a sense of real risk and potential for loss?
PsychologyDoes the programme expose and work with psychological processes?
StrategyDoes the programme work in personal,  cultural and structural realms simultaneously?
TribeDo you become part of an independently supportive community as part of the programme?
TimeIs the programme long enough to support enduring change?
Counter-cultureDoes the programme challenge our industrial growth culture and the assumptions upon which it is built?
ProcessAre relationships and processes given more attention than models and outcomes?
GraceDoes the programme hear your story and not try to sell you one?  Does it give you the space to find your own way?


This article is the second of two. Read the first part here ...

A manifesto for sustainability leadership development


  1. Hugo Verhagen15th June 2021

    Wow Dave, this sums up a lot for me. You know where I’m coming from and I feel very aligned to your ten points. So agree in the power of these concepts in developing change makers. It’s humbling to have been on a vastly different journey only to arrive at the same place!

    1. David Key15th June 2021

      Very cool Hugo! Yes, I guess we started out in the same place too! I wonder how that has influenced things? Interesting!


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