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Leading Change for Sustainability

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” – John Quincy Adams

I recently had an “ah ha” moment after watching Goran Carstedt’s TED talk Leadership for a Sustainable Future. “Transformational change”, he says, “will take leadership on all levels – political leaders, corporate leaders, but also leadership practiced by us all. As consumers, as parents, as citizens.” Each of us can be part of the small beginnings of transformational change – changing perceptions, thinking, habits, and behaviors. How can we re-envision leadership in this way?

Demystifying leadership

Are you a leader?

For many people, the word itself conjures up images of a charismatic, heroic leader. We imagine leaders as special people, walking on a higher plane than the rest of us.

When leadership is framed this way, it begins to take on a larger-than-life quality. It becomes bigger than us. Something unattainable and beyond our grasp. We want to believe that we have what it takes to lead, but that little voice of doubt in our mind remains unconvinced.

This idea of leadership as a privileged position or a job title isn’t just limiting – it’s counter-productive. It misses the critical point that leadership is not only a position, but also an influence: a way of being in the world. And it can be cultivated over time. The first step involves letting go of our outdated, incomplete conceptions of leadership. To be frank, we don’t have time to wait for a savior. Now, as Carstedt says, we need leadership at every level.

Core capabilities for collective leadership

In their seminal article SuperLeadership: Beyond the Myth of Heroic Leadership, authors Charles Manz and Henry Sims say, “The most appropriate leader today is one who can lead others to lead themselves.” The focus of this leadership view is less on the leader and more on the team. SuperLeadership ignites collective leadership and fosters collaboration and cooperation towards systems-level change. This type of leader:

  • Shares power
  • Motivates others to lead
  • Builds relationships
  • Listens deeply
  • Models self-leadership
  • Seeks wisdom from others
  • Encourages “followers” to build on their strengths and grow their potential

SuperLeadership is very similar to the work of Peter Senge and other systems thinkers. Senge believes we are at the dawn of system leadership. He makes a compelling case that today’s most intractable, complex problems require a new style of leader – the system leader.

Much like the SuperLeader, the system leader is committed to “the health of the whole”. They come to leadership with a sense of openness and curiousity. In addition to IQ, they also have high emotional intelligence and spiritual intelligence . Rather than feeling threatened by the success of others, they celebrate it. They empathize and try to see reality through the eyes of people different from themselves. They have an ability to learn from criticism and embrace, rather than avoid, challenges and complexity.

Senge suggests there are three core competencies of system leaders:

  1. They possess an ability to see the larger system.
  2. They foster reflection and more generative conversations.
  3. They shift the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.

This new style of leadership is still in its infancy. But we have never needed it more than we do now. While the notion of system leadership and SuperLeadership may seem revolutionary, the ideas are actually quite old. Over 2,000 years ago the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu beautifully articulated the idea of such individuals:

The wicked leader is he whom the people despise.
The good leader is he whom the people revere.
The great leader is he of whom the people say, “We did it ourselves.”

Leading change for sustainability means more changing business-as-usual. It also means shifting the way we think about leadership. As Senge says, we must realize that problems that are “out there” are also “in here”. We are part of the systems we are trying to change. If we can begin to change the way we think about leadership, sustainability just might follow.

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