Sustainable Leadership: Eternal optimism & getting your hands dirty

10 February, 2021
sustainable leadership

Sustainable leadership x change at scale in 2023

I’m going to open up about something very important to me in this article: sustainable leadership and my belief that for sustainability to really be implemented across all industries around the globe, two things must happen simultaneously – 1. an eternal optimism held by the changemakers, and 2. a willingness to dirty one’s hands and do some hard work.

Can both happen at the same time? Yes. I believe so.

What is sustainable leadership?

Sustainable leadership is a leadership style that focuses on creating long-term value and positive impact, not just for a company or organization, but also for the wider community and environment. The role of sustainable leaders entails prioritising the well-being of their employees, the conservation of natural resources, and the creation of sustainable business practices that benefit all stakeholders, including customers, shareholders, and society as a whole. This approach to leadership emphasizes the importance of considering the long-term consequences of decisions and actions and focuses on creating a sustainable future for all.

Table of contents:

Why is sustainable leadership important?

Sustainable leadership is important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is essential for the long-term health and success of organizations and businesses. By prioritizing the well-being of employees, the conservation of natural resources, and the creation of sustainable business practices, sustainable leaders can help their organizations thrive in the long run. This is because sustainable leadership fosters innovation, creativity, and collaboration, all of which are essential for staying competitive in today’s global marketplace.

Additionally, sustainable leadership is important because it helps to create a more just and equitable society. By prioritizing the well-being of all stakeholders, including customers, employees, and the broader community, sustainable leaders can help to reduce inequality and create opportunities for all members of society to thrive.

Finally, sustainable leadership is important because it is essential for addressing the challenges of climate change and environmental degradation. By focusing on conservation and sustainability, leaders can help to reduce the negative impact of human activity on the environment and contribute to a more sustainable future for all.

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. A few 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?

How to put together a good sustainable leadership strategy?

To put together a good sustainable leadership strategy, there are a few key steps you can follow:

1. Identify your organization’s core values and mission

Before you can develop a sustainable leadership strategy, you need to know what your organization stands for and what it hopes to achieve. Take the time to clearly define your organization’s core values and mission, and use these as the foundation for your sustainable leadership efforts.

2. Engage with all stakeholders 

Sustainable leadership is about considering the needs and perspectives of all stakeholders, including employees, customers, shareholders, and the broader community. Make sure to involve these groups in the development of your sustainable leadership strategy, and be open to their input and suggestions.

3. Set clear goals and objectives

A good sustainable leadership strategy should include specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals and objectives. This will help to ensure that your efforts are focused and effective, and that you can track your progress over time.

4. Develop a plan of action to implement sustainable leadership

Once you have identified your goals and objectives, you need to develop a plan of action to achieve them. This should include specific steps that your organization will take to implement your sustainable leadership strategy, as well as timelines, budgets, and accountability measures.

5. Monitor and evaluate your progress

Finally, it is essential to regularly monitor and assess your progress to ensure that you are achieving your sustainable leadership goals and objectives. This will help you to identify any challenges or obstacles that you need to overcome and make adjustments as needed to ensure that you are on track to achieve your goals

Sustainable Leadership Courses and Training

1. Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) has been a recurring result for sustainable leadership courses. You can browse all their courses here.



When it comes to climate education, is a perfect place to explore as they are all about the cause.


3. IEMA Environmental Sustainability Skills for Managers

A two-day course intended to support managers and supervisors from any industry/business sector in understanding the strategic and operational implications environmental sustainability has on them, their teams and their department.


4. ISO 14001:2015: Leadership & Commitment Workshop

A course to provide your senior management team with ideas for environmental improvements and information on programmes that can provide improved skills for your workforce.


5. Other References

Check this website for some top executive courses.


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.


What is sustainable leadership?

Sustainable leadership is a leadership approach that focuses on creating long-term positive impacts on people, the environment, and society. It involves leading in a way that balances short-term and long-term goals, prioritizes ethical decision-making, and considers the impact of decisions on future generations.


A sustainable leader possesses qualities such as vision, integrity, empathy, resilience, adaptability, and a commitment to continuous learning and improvement. They prioritize collaboration and teamwork, foster a culture of innovation and creativity, and make decisions that consider the needs of all stakeholders, including future generations.

The principles of sustainability leadership include fostering a culture of sustainability, prioritizing stakeholder engagement and communication, promoting transparency and accountability, integrating sustainability into all aspects of operations and decision-making, and continuously improving sustainability performance.

Sustainability is important in leadership because it promotes responsible and ethical decision-making that considers the impact of decisions on people, the environment, and society. It helps to create long-term success for organizations by fostering innovation, building trust and credibility with stakeholders, and improving employee morale and retention. It also helps to ensure that resources are managed in a way that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

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