Sustainability Leadership: Eternal optimism and getting your hands dirty

10 February, 2021

I’m going to open up about something very important to me in this article, my belief that for sustainability to really be implemented across all industries around the globe, two things must happen simultaneously – an eternal optimism held by the changemakers, and a willingness to dirty one’s hands and do some hard work. Can both happen at the same time? Yes. I believe so.

The personality requirements of true sustainability leaders

True leaders drive progress from the front, they don’t sit back and dish out orders, instead, they pull up their sleeves, and they do what needs to be done. The reason they can do things with such force and belief is that they know that eternal optimism is a vital component of progress. Look at any changemaker in history, whether it be Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Theresa, Mikhael Gorbachev, or Nelson Mandela, they all succeeded because they had infinite conviction and the mental strength to do the dirty work.

If a supposed change-maker lacks optimism and a rock-solid work ethic, they suffer from defeatism and a lack of commitment. These are the worst traits any change-maker can have.

Sustainability itself is a strategy done best by getting your hands dirty

When it comes to leading from the front and driving sustainable change, those who find themselves in that position will have to do some tough jobs, jobs that won’t please everyone. I’m going to give you some examples.

  • Being persistent or pushy. Have you ever heard of the adoption scale? (see below). Some people are innovators and early adopters, these people are your friends as they will buy into your ideas and support it from the start. Some people see good people following good ideas and follow them – they are the early majority. Some people see the people close to them doing something, and they don’t want to be left behind, so they reluctantly follow suit; they are the late majority. Laggards are the people who are the last to adopt an idea, or perhaps never do. The late majority and laggards are going to be your biggest problem, and you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and drag them along. Think of the people you know, which category to they fit into, and does that reflect on multiple areas of their lives?

  • Making tough decisions. The sociologist Malcolm Gladwell is quoted as saying “Innovators need to be disagreeable. By disagreeable, I don’t mean obnoxious or unpleasant.” He continues to say “They are people willing to take social risks—to do things that others might disapprove of.” This couldn’t be truer than with sustainability. People don’t like change, so enforcing it means making tough decisions that might make you an unpopular figure. Don’t worry, some of the world’s finest visionaries haven’t been popular at the time they were making changes.
  • Being physically involved. Some change-makers enact their change by barking out orders, but in reality, that’s not how people learn. People learn by seeing something done right, and so it’s your job to roll up your sleeves and change the hearts and minds of those around you. If you don’t, who will?

A reminder to not get bogged down by the state of the planet

There’s an old story that comes from Japan that goes something like this.

An old man and a young man are stood at the traffic lights waiting for the signal to cross the road. There are no cars around, in fact, it is very quiet. The young man is about to step into the road and cross when the old man pulls him back. “Why did you stop me from crossing? There are no cars around” the young man says. “My boy, what if a child is watching?”

What this says to me is that no matter what others are doing, what obstacles the world throws at you, and what state the planet is in, it is important to follow the logic, take caution, and stay on the right path.

On that note, I hope your unwavering optimism long continues, as do I hope that you are more willing and inspired after reading this to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.

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