Sustainability leadership is different from other types of leadership

This article explores five primary reasons why sustainability leadership is different from most other approaches to leadership development.

Sometimes it seems that around every corner lurks an expert willing to support your leadership journey. The world is full of clever leadership models, beautifully illustrated in vibrant colours. Libraries brim with textbooks. The internet bristles with videos and interactive resources. And of course these models and gurus can often really help. They disrupt the daily myopia and draw our eyes up to the horizon. They furnish us with tried-and-tested tools and techniques. They give us a chance to take stock and gather ourselves for the next challenge.

For most leadership scenarios this is more than enough. Highly skilled and experienced people have led things before, the lessons they have learned can be passed on.

But if you are trying to lead change on issues the size of a planet, that have never been seen before by your species, that are more complex than (and in-fact, include) quantum physics, that threaten to annihilate you, your family, your friends and half the living creatures of the Earth - then most of the approaches to leadership development currently available are unlikely to help. Here’s a few reasons why.


Our planet is infinitely complex. Even something as complex as the human brain is simple compared to the planet as a whole. And of course our planet actually includes the human brain - it’s one minuscule aspect of our planetary system of life, one infinitesimally tiny piece of a vast, incomprehensible web.

To make matters more complicated, this web also includes the metaphysical world. To extend the comparison - the human brain isn’t just a lump of meat. It is also thoughts, feelings, ideas, emotions, sensations, creativity, memories - perhaps even a site of consciousness itself. The sustainability web includes ecosystems but it also includes social systems, beliefs, values, stories and identities - among myriad other intangible things. All these effect the ways we behave and are therefore essential ingredients in leading change.

It takes a unique and highly specialised form of leadership to navigate such complexity. Anything generic is inadequate.


Add novelty to complexity and sustainability leadership takes a sharp curve away from familiar leadership terrain. Let’s take climate change for example. As a species we’ve never done anthropogenic climate change before. It’s new, novel. It’s emerged within a single human generation. It’s a challenge to which we find ourselves utterly committed while having no precedent whatsoever to start from. How do you lead in a situation like that?

We need leadership approaches that can cope with completely new and wildly random events - without depending on being able to predict or control them.


Over the past 400 years or so our dominant industrial culture has addressed nearly every human challenge with one single faculty: the intellect. We worship rationalism. We adore logic. We live by numbers. We even navigate our daily relationships with algorithms - from isolated cells, mediated by binary code.

We have achieved a great deal with this bias. Advances in science and technology that our grand-parents - our parents even - would find magical. We have performed alchemy. We have transformed sand into light. We have solved some problems very well, even if many of them turn out not to be that significant to our survival. In the meantime, while enchanted by our own cleverness (or perhaps while peering into our iPhones), we have created new problems that ironically turn out to be catastrophically significant to our survival.

We need something else now as well as our intellect. We need our senses, our feelings and our intuition. These things cannot be thought out, they are experienced in - and through - our bodies. We cannot learn to swim by reading a book about swimming. At some point we have to ‘embody’ the process and jump into the water. In the same way we cannot learn to live within our ecosystems without having a direct physical - sensory, emotional and intuitive - experience of them.

Sustainability leaders must develop a tangible and conscious personal relationship with the rest of nature.


Actually, counter-culture. As Albert Einstein so famously said, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’ Despite this over-quoted phrase being rolled-out ubiquitously at leadership development events across the planet, we still don’t seem to have grasped what it really implies.

First off, let’s move beyond just ‘the same thinking’. Lets apply Einstein’s point much more widely: to a whole worldview for example. We are not going to solve the problems faced by our contemporary industrial growth culture using the rules, methods and mindsets of that same culture. Everything has to be challenged - especially the things that are now so deeply embedded in our culture that they are invisible to us. What documentary maker Adam Curtis refers to as ‘hypernormal’ phenomena.

This means that if an approach to sustainability leadership looks, acts and feels like it belongs to our current dominant unsustainable culture - then it is unlikely to be able to challenge that culture enough to change it. Think about this... because this statement covers most current forms of leadership development, including those currently lionised as radically progressive.

Sustainability leadership development needs the courage to challenge our dominant culture… to it’s core. If it looks like business as usual, then it is.


Our current relationship with time helps to maintain our unsustainable culture.

Our culture is impatient, built on convenience. We compress time wherever possible in the name of efficiency. We over-simplify the world so that we can understand it quickly. But convenience now creates problems later, efficiency just speeds everything up rather than making life more worthwhile, and our tendency to oversimplify everything (the elevator pitch, the 2-page proposal) leaves our understanding shallow and incomplete.

Sustainability leadership is working with goals and aspirations that are in many cases the most ambitious, demanding and long-term in the history of our species. And yet most organisations want to be able to address these goals in the same time-frames as learning a new back-end system, building a project team, incentivising employees or fostering better communications.

Clearly sustainability leadership development needs to challenge this vicious time-cycle. It must acknowledge the true nature and scale of the challenges we face - and break into an altogether new relationship with time.


Sustainability leadership has to be able to work with complexity, beyond the limits of current human knowledge. It must be capable of taking leaders into unknown terrain where they can hone the skills needed to work with emergent phenomena - not theoretically, but literally. It must engage the whole person. Feelings, senses, intuition and intellect must all be engaged and explored. This requires physical, emotional and social experiences - as well as intellectual ones.

Sustainability leadership development cannot replicate the culture it is trying to change. It must work differently: different environments, different social rules and boundaries, different techniques and a deep courage to step off the map into new terrain. It must also challenge our cultural relationship with time. At what level of crisis will we actually commit enough time to developing leaders who are really ready to step up to the sustainability challenge?

There is leadership and there is sustainability leadership: they are very different.

Sustainability leadership is different from other types of leadership | David Key

Photo: Frank Hurley


  1. Anna Pollock21st May 2019

    Thank you David – this is so relevant to the work I am doing in tourism where there is an urgent need to shift off a mechanical, extractive mindset to a living systems view and develop the capacity to thrive and evolve beyond mere survival!

    1. David Key27th May 2019

      Thanks Anna.

  2. Davie Philip28th April 2019

    Yes that really resonates David, thanks.

    1. David Key27th May 2019

      Thanks very much for your comment Davie – I’m very glad.


Leave a Reply

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

Scroll to top