Sustainability leadership development: a 10 point manifesto

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 describes what I believe are ten essential elements of truly effective sustainability leadership development programmes.

ONE: Embodiment

An extremely effective way of encouraging people to live sustainably is to help them understand that they themselves are part of nature. This is very difficult to do just by thinking. We need to experience it. In our bodies.

It is easiest to experience that you are part of nature by being in a place where nature is in control. Where it is undomesticated, uncultivated, self-willed, wild, raw, complete, unmediated. And getting you wet. Or cold. Or warm by the fire. Or revealing such extreme beauty that you are compelled to cry. Or shout out. Or hug someone.

Embodiment refers to the tangible form of an idea. An idea becomes embodied when it becomes part of your physical body. When you ‘understand’ it beyond abstraction, logic, reason, culture or convention. As Indigenous Australians describe it, the idea “goes in”. In French, the word for embodiment is ‘encarne’ the latin root means “of meat”.

The idea that we are part of nature and that we need to live accordingly only becomes real, meaningful and compelling - only goes in - when it becomes us, literally. When it becomes more than just an idea. When it enters our meat to become reflex and instinct. Think muscle memory (or better still, experience it)!

Sustainability leadership development should include physical, sensory, embodied outdoor experiences of wild nature.

TWO: Complexity

Nature is the most complex system on planet Earth. In fact, it is planet Earth.

If you want to lead change in complex ecological systems - and in the social and organisational system which they contain - then you need to know how those systems work.

Sustainability leadership development should include ecological literacy and systems thinking. Leaders should understand and be able to work with complexity.

THREE: Adventure

The challenges we all face with the onslaught of global warming, biodiversity loss, nitrogen pollution, plastic waste and zoonotic viral spread, just for example, are novel.

They are new. We have no precedents. We have never experience these things before. We have never had to respond to them before. Especially not in a lethal cocktail.

Adventure includes ‘an activity the outcomes of which are uncertain’. Being in the wilderness is an adventure. Preparing for an unknowable future is also an adventure. Both can include physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual challenges. Both can include fear, pain, loss, failure, success and ecstasy. However, being in the wilderness is possible now, being in the future is not. Outdoor adventure provides the perfect context to prepare to navigate the unknown.

Sustainability leadership development should have adventure at it’s heart. Real adventure, visceral, in real-world situations, with a real sense of risk. It must involve experiences with unpredictable and uncertain outcomes. Of course, expertly facilitated by professionals who know how to work safely in such fluid environments.

FOUR: Psychology

Sustainability leaders need to understand and be able to work with psychological processes like, for example projection, identification, transference, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and transactions. They also need to have explored what the self is (or isn’t) and how it relates to the world (or doesn’t).

Leaders need to be able to make psychological processes conscious to themselves and to the people they work with. They must have the capacity and experience to hold them as they emerge - in all their sometimes terrifying beauty. This must be done ethically, professionally and with deep humility. Most of all it must be done safely.

Sustainability leadership development should include psychological theory and practical techniques.

FIVE: Strategy

Social psychology suggests that there are three realms in which change must happen simultaneously for it to have a meaningful impact on society. These are personal (psychological); cultural (narrative) and; structural (policy, legislation, etc.).

If you do a quick audit of the sustainability leadership development programmes you’re aware of, I bet most focus on two of these realms at best. Common parings are cultural and structural - and personal and cultural. Mostly the focus is on just one.

Sustainability leadership development should work in personal, cultural and structural realms simultaneously.

SIX: Community

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 community’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?
CommunityDo 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?

Discover the Natural Change sustainability leadership development programme which delivers all these essential ingredients ...

A manifesto for sustainability leadership development


  1. David Key4th November 2020

    Thanks for your comment Jan. I totally agree. It is a highly contested and misleading term. I think it has been consistently mis-used since Claire Short, the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development, deliberately reformed the word to mean sustainable *economic* development in 1992. Thus providing a nonsensical basis for conventional economic growth to be the route to ‘sustainability’!

    But my clients still use the word. And it is still the word used most commonly in mainstream culture. For example, companies and public departments still use it to describe their employees, strategic goals and programmes.

    In my academic and peer community I never use the word. I tend toward the phrase ‘living within the Earth’s limits’, rather than living ‘sustainably’. But I want my writing to be accessible and effective and so I have chosen to use words with common meanings and understandings. However inaccurate and some-what counter-productive in the long-term.

    What words or terms do you use for this meaning?

  2. Jan de groot4th November 2020

    Hi, thanks for sharing. All good points but I would offer to cut out the word sustainability. It is outdated and holding us back from progressing into an integrated and holistic approach. It is de facto a defense mechanism of incumbent forces.


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