Sustainability and the industrial state of the leadership art

In a previous article, I wrote that sustainability leadership development should be different to other more generic forms. This article continues that thread by challenging the industrial heart of many leadership programmes.

After the completion of the second WWF Natural Change leadership project in 2011, there was pressure to expand the programme and ‘roll it out’ to a wider audience. At the time this made absolute sense and I duly set out on a five-year journey to train a group of facilitators to lead future programmes. This proved to be a hard road. It quickly became apparent that sustainability leadership development programmes like Natural Change cannot be standardised or mass-produced, so training people to facilitate them in conventional terms is incredibly difficult. 

This journey also showed that there’s a basic underlying assumption that leadership development is an industrial process. That it can be theorised, designed, tested, standardised, replicated and then mass-produced - ‘rolled-out’. Take a look at any contemporary leadership programme. Is it based on a set of steps or stages? Does it appear in a colour-coded diagram or directional flow chart? Does it come with a handbook or manual? Is it modular? Does it offer certainty of given outcomes? Can it be easily replicated? All these are constructs of industrialism.


It’s easy to see why we’ve ended up with this kind of leadership development. Contemporary approaches emerged from a command-and-control military model. The modus operandi of the new corporation combined national military might with limited liability and the raising of capital through stock. This fuelled the unstoppable engine of 16th Century empires, which then trundled unfettered into the Industrial Revolution, and beyond. One of the many legacies of this is that contemporary approaches to leadership have a military soul, an industrial heart and an expansionist agenda.

Our unsustainable society is built on assumptions which also underpin most of the leadership approaches trying to challenge it. Today, even apparently progressive programmes sit in the shadow of the very systems they most need to change. 

A first look at the world of leadership development reveals numerous metaphors and a great deal of inspirational language. Participants are invited into profound personal journeys, couched in narratives of psychological depth, spiritual significance and radical transformation. All these seem to challenge the techno-scientific logic of industrialism. But a closer inspection uncovers prescribed frameworks, didactic facilitation, exclusive knowledge, the promise of mastery and power, and an appetite for domination and expansion. 

There is also often an obsession with content - born of an industrial desire for the ownership of intellectual property - which can in turn lead to ruthless territoriality and counter-productive competition. How leadership development is facilitated is much more significant to its outcomes than what is facilitated. A really good facilitator can develop leaders by asking them to make a piece of toast.

Inevitably, the actual experience of simply taking part in many current leadership development programmes supports an industrial worldview. They are often heavily mediated by technology. They take place in board rooms, conference centres, hotel suites, and at ‘retreats’ - or in ‘labs’ or ‘workshops’. Participants and facilitators dress smart-casual in the ‘uniform’ of the corporate creative. The ‘business case' is made. 'Outputs' are promised. ‘Toolkits’ are developed. The graphics are professional. ‘Bullet points’ are written. These are the methods, nomenclature and contexts of industry and its military forebears. 

Sometimes this legacy is obvious but I’ve noticed that increasingly it is hidden behind a seductive mask of verbiage and New Age rhetoric. While an alternative, radical, post-industrial world is apparently offered by many leadership programmes, beneath the skin lurks the bone structure of a familiar industrial face.

Seeing behind this mask is especially important for sustainability leadership. The conventions and norms of military industrialism must be challenged because they are perpetuating our unsustainable industrial growth culture. However deeply they are hidden and for whatever reasons - intentional or not - they must be made visible and confronted.

I am not blaming anyone for perpetuating our destructive culture - we are all complicit. Neither do I mean to throw the industrial baby out with its post-industrial bathwater. Clearly, we still need to produce and consume stuff. I simply want to expose some of the buried assumptions in our approaches to leadership, so that we can break out, and through, to something more effective.

Arts & Crafts

So what does this mean for the future of sustainability leadership development? Well the first clue for me was through a comment made by a client during a residential programme. It came privately, whispered in my ear as I stood making a cup of tea. “What’s happening here is performative - it’s art.” 

The next clue came through a dream I had where I had chiselled the corner off a block of stone to start sculpting it, only to find that there was a crack under the surface. I had to abandon my design completely. This rock had other ideas.

Every combination of client, group and context creates an utterly unique substance. Like the dream stone, it has its own grain, fault lines and density. Each sculpture might start the same way - knock the first corner off the block, try to hew some kind of rough shape based on a loose idea. But very soon the work defies standardisation. It cannot be subject to the same rules and ideas as any previous work. It cannot be controlled or predicted. It must reveal itself naturally, in real-time, in response to the many forces acting upon it. 

In the same way, facilitating an experience which invites sustainability leadership must be unique at every iteration to mirror situations of intense uncertainty. They might start with some kind of support and intention - the corner off the block, the loose shape - but then they must give way to whatever emerges, however difficult. Content and facilitator - prescription and hegemony - must dissolve, as leaders sculpt their own form and that of their group. The physical context and timeframe should enable the widest possible range of responses. This is not a two-hour workshop in a conference room. This is not industry - it’s art.

Off the map

With sustainability leadership, we are preparing for an unknowable future. We have to work out how to respond to unpredictable events, how to adapt, and how to build resilience and community in circumstances we cannot yet even imagine. We need to be able to lead in a new ecological - and therefore social - context. There simply isn’t a map for this journey - we must learn how to navigate in response to the terrain. Outdoor leaders call this, ‘route finding’ which is a completely different skill to ‘map reading’.

Through my naive attempts at mass production, it became clear that approaching sustainability leadership development as an art project, rather than as a technical process, is very helpful. As a facilitator, art brings me closer to the ground, to the terrain itself. It draws me away from the abstraction of the map - and from the hidden cartographers who made it. 

Art also casts light on some of the more shadowy aspects of most current approaches to leadership development. It invites novel perspectives on everything we think we know. Especially, in this case, the unconscious reproduction of assumptions about value, power and purpose that prop up our unsustainable industrial growth culture.

Part of my work is to help others lead change for an ecologically sustainable future. As a practitioner, reframing this process as art has proved very useful. It helps expose and challenge the industrial heart of most contemporary approaches to sustainability leadership while opening to a whole new world of instinct, vitality and response.


This article is humbly dedicated to the memory of the late Chris Seeley - a most artful leader. 

I would like to acknowledge Deborah Richardson-Webb who made that pivotal comment about performance and who has suffered immensely for her art.

Wassily Kandinski 1886-1944

Wassily Kandinski 1886-1944


  1. Andy Kenworthy29th August 2019

    Very timely piece for me. I have definitely seen this in the rapidly emerging/merging scene of sustainability people and life coaches/spiritual practitioners. It all seems very lovely and well meaning to see young people flying off to Bali and Geneva for climate leader conference X and such, but it all seems to fall squarely within the boundaries of the current destructive and elitist paradigm. “Retreat” is often too accurate a name for these gatherings, and “workshops” all too often don’t involve any of the kind of work that gets us close to the ground with mud under our nails…What is often left out is: what are we teaching people to be better at leading? If it’s to go back and be better at leading a an extractive corporate entity making non-essential products then I have to question whether it’s doing any good, or more likely doing more harm…

  2. Jonny Gritt28th August 2019

    Interesting perspective David; thank you. Heaps to explore here. One of the challenges I see almost daily is the blur between a development approach offered by supposed experts for “leadership” that when boiled down offer no more than a set of revived management techniques. Perhaps a distinction that I have found useful, to add to your stream of thought, lies in the difference that experienced leaders offer intuitively by providing a path through uncertainty that many managers will not be able to navigate.

    1. David Key29th August 2019

      Spot on Jonny, thank you. I think that’s exactly right.

      I guess the challenge, given the increasing ecological uncertainties and risks that we are facing, is how to engage, value and support that intuitive aspect. The fact that you describe this emerging from experience I feel to be really important.

      Heaps to explore indeed!

      1. Deborah Richardson-Webb29th August 2019

        I’m about to speak at an NUS conference and I’m drawing on the many ideas we have discussed over years now…however, in the light of Jonny’s comment and your response, I was struck by this extract from my notes (which comes originallly from something I wrote on a Natural Change residency in 2010!):

        I believe in:
        • valuing intuition
        • in taking time
        • and in being hopeful

        1. David Key29th August 2019

          It’s lovey that you’ve commented given your role in the genesis of this article! And wow, fascinating to see your notes from NC… what a beautiful resurgence (and what a sudden flood of powerful memories).

  3. David Key28th August 2019

    Hi Gill!

    Thanks for your comment. Debby was telling me you’d had a bit of a change of direction! Arts and crafts all the way I say…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *