What’s hindering sustainability leadership? Time to go beyond innovation dissonance.

Innovation has been essential for the survival of our species. As we engage with challenges like global warming and biodiversity loss, it will remain increasingly so. These are novel phenomena and they demand new and innovative responses. But there is a deep and frustrating dissonance between innovation and sustainability leadership development.

Most organisations talk a good leadership innovation game. The rhetoric is rich and seductive, full of promise and excitement. Leadership is revered as the holy grail - the key to unlock potential-beyond-measure. Investors and funders are looking for it and there are leadership visionaries able to provide it. So what’s the problem?

Cognitive dissonance

Dissonance describes disharmony - a mismatch between one thing and another. In psychology this is often referred to as ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ where knowledge does not fit behaviour. Being in situations of cognitive dissonance feels uncomfortable and often leads to defensive coping strategies like denial, displacement and rationalisation. The smoker who sees the warning on the cigarrette pack but smokes anyway - “it’s not that harmful / it helps with the stress / it’s only one”. Whatever their response, the smoker is left with uncomfortable feelings because they know, deep down, that their strategy is flawed. Reality always wins.

In organisations, dissonance emerges in the same way - where behaviour does not match knowledge. Organisations know they ultimately have no choice except to fully embrace the sustainability agenda - but they cannot get past the near-term discomfort of risk and change. Their commitment to sustainability waivers, lost in a sea of coping strategies and empty narrative. "It's not that relevant to us / it's not up to us / there are more urgent matters".  A turn is made to shallow initiatives and cunning public relations.

The problem is then, that real innovation means real risk. Most of the organisations I’ve worked with want change, often desperately, which is why they ask me to work with them. But as we dig deeper into the implications of that change, risks start to emerge and things get uncomfortable. Nowadays, I accept that at least half of my new projects will end before they properly begin. The organisation, despite its best intentions, cannot resolve its deep-seated unconscious dissonance between risk and the imperative for change.

This manifests in many ways. Minuscule sustainability budgets, a lack of access to senior management and the board room, marginalising sustainability, focussing only on compliance, green-washing, interpersonal dysfunction - and commissioning leadership development programmes that are actually just coping strategies, sticking to the ‘same-old’ safe terrain. Ultimately ineffectual.

Resilience deadlock

For many organisations sustainability is a deepening nightmare of compliance, impossible investment demands, low near-term returns - and in some cases financial suicide. How can an organisation engage with genuinely innovative sustainability leadership... if doing so forces it to face an apparently impossible reality? Deadlock.

I can’t tell you how many sustainability leaders I have worked with over the last 20 years who are disillusioned, burnt-out or just plain exhausted. They are employed as decoys - as organisations want to be seen to be doing their bit while not really wanting the risks this implies. Individual leaders have to absorb the organisation's dissonance... and it takes them down. The demand for development work around 'resilience' is a testament to this. It's easier to make individual leaders more personally 'resilient' to a dysfunctional system than it is to change the system itself. The result is the same: deadlock again.

Most organisations want their clients, employees and stakeholders to see them as progressive, creative and environmentally savvy. So they talk a good innovation game. But what they don’t do, is actually take the risk of engaging with novel sustainability leadership approaches. Not because they think they won’t work - but precisely because they think they might!

This is innovation dissonance in sustainability leadership development: lionising innovation at the same time as stifling it.

In the shadows

The real challenge though, is that much of this Jekyll-and-Hyde process is not conscious. Organisations are not actively aware of it in most cases. It sits in their ’shadow’. This makes them unwitting victims wandering in the mist of short-termism and fear, unable to navigate towards their - and the planet’s - long-term future. The evidence of this stasis is everywhere. This unconscious sleep-walk must be disrupted if catastrophe is to be avoided. Luckily, there are people in all organisations who can see into the shadows. These are the organisation's hope but they are so often ignored, harbingers of an uncomfortable reality, lurking there in the darkness.


As we have all discovered with Covid-19, nature does not negotiate. Those organisations that throw convention out of the window and brave the more innovative and unconventional leadership development approaches will be the ones that survive, and thrive. Those that do not will continue to recycle the status quo, until ecological fact inevitably catches up with them.

Fear, courage, Covid and civil engineering

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