What makes a strong leader in sustainability?

Work in sustainability entails immense challenges, and much of the area is uncharted. To navigate it, strong leadership is essential. For the twentieth year in a row, the GlobeScan-SustainAbility survey Sustainability Leaders has sought to answer that question by tracking the opinions of qualified experts and practitioners from government, NGOs, companies and institutions from all over the world.

The results reveal how the sustainability agenda has evolved, as well as the attributes of the organizations that are most responsible for driving it forward.  The survey included perceptions of organizational performance, leadership attributes and specific leaders in different sectors.

Defining Characteristics of Future Leaders

Sustainability Leaders asked respondents what characteristics they believe will most define leading organizations a decade from now. The top responses were:

  • integrated sustainable strategy/vision (35 percent)
  • innovative/visionary (23 percent)
  • honesty/transparency/trust (22 percent)
  • communication/engagement/advocacy (21 percent)
  • socially responsible/human rights/employee welfare/inclusive (21 percent)

“Stakeholder expectations are changing—and growing,” Delaney said. “It’s no longer enough to have a sustainability strategy alongside or as an add-on to your business strategy. You need a strategy and vision for your business that accounts for and reflects sustainability.”

Leadership Attributes

Respondents were also asked to score their chosen corporate leader on a list of leadership attributes. The top-ranked attributes were:

  • integrated sustainability values (26 percent)
  • executive leadership has strong sustainable development values/strong leadership (17 percent)
  • part of core business model/strategic approach (16 percent)

“Integrated sustainability values” jumped up a few notches in importance between 2015 and 2017. “There has been a considerable uptick in the emphasis in values, evident in the increase from 11 percent in 2015 to 26 percent in 2017,” noted Denise Delaney, director at SustainAbility. “While the increase in the values of executive leadership [from 15 percent in 2015 to 17 percent in 2017] is less pronounced, it is related. Any company can say they have great values, but being able to articulate and demonstrate your values through the core of your business—and through your leadership—is key.”

Corporate Leaders in Sustainability

Regarding specific corporate leaders, respondents named Unilever as the premier global corporate sustainability leader—for the seventh year in a row.  Patagonia and Interface were second and third. One respondent commented on Patagonia’s integrated values: “Even though they sell clothing, they address the fact that consumerism is part of the sustainability problem.”

So how can this information help companies make decisions about how to improve or advance their sustainability efforts? “We hope it inspires companies to take a hard look in the mirror,” Delaney said. “If you have a strong strategy, might you be lacking the vision bringing it together? Are you ambitious enough? Have you evaluated sustainability issues with the lens of business opportunity or risk mitigation?”

By Staff Writer – Allison Burtka