What is Sustainability?
(Photo: by Heidi Helm)
The definition of sustain is “to support, hold, or bear up from below; bear the weight of, as a structure. (sustain)” Nine other definitions all speak of endurance, keeping something going, and providing for. The word is cyclical in nature rather than linear. Thus the definition of sustain lends itself perfectly to the notion of relaxing into, rather than resisting nature. In his book, The Sustainability Revolution, Andres R. Edwards likens our move towards ecological coexistence to the Industrial Revolution of the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s. The latter moved us away from farming, local community, and simple tool use towards mass production, uninhibited use of finite energy sources, and global travel and communication. (Edwards 3)In our passion for discovery and invention we lost the balance between ecology, economics, and equality (the three Es.) It is not too late for us to regain equilibrium. This present swing of the social pendulum maintains the realization that we can’t wind back the evolutionary hands of humanity’s clock. All of the wonder and destruction of which evolving human beings are capable was necessary to arrive at this realization.
Edwards differentiates a movement from a revolution by the presence of a charismatic leader and a focused goal. (Edwards 5) Sustainability, although influenced by many passionate leaders can be traced to no one person, and it has come to encompass most aspects of life in which we operate today. The main concepts of sustainability are (a) the reconnection of what has come to be known as separate, (b) to restore balance to our world community, and (c) to be wise stewards of the energy needed to maintain global, social, and economic health. We are awakening, slowly, to a new perspective of our universe.
The history page looks at autumn seeds sown in the form of people and events leading to contemporary sustainability, and the expressions page presents organizations within this revolution, which are taking on the challenge of rebalancing the three Es.
Principles of Sustainability
Much of the literature about sustainable leadership comes from the field of education. Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullen have both published books on the subject outlining basic principles, or elements, of sustainable leadership in education. Their views are similar in nature and appropriately apply to the leadership of any type of organization. Both sets of principles are listed at the bottom of this page. I consider what follows to be the most important aspects of sustainability when applied to leadership in general.
Instead of the three Es (ecology, equality, and economy), I like the three Ps: planet, people, and profit. Profit is sort of a dirty word and charged with negative connotations. Though we might like to pretend that profit is not the driving force in outr culture today, without it, there would be no economy as we have come to know it.
The Industrial Revolution—which created our production-distribution-consumption-based economy—gave birth to the middle class, freed us from the ruling aristocracy, and created a friendly environment for the entrepreneur. The revolution was based on automation, making possible the manufacturing of higher quantities of goods at a lower cost. So, in one way, it closed the gap between the haves and the have-nots (terracycle) But like any social revolution, the ideal itself becomes a prison from which we must escape in the future. This is an inevitable cycle of human development. As we learn more and more about how the universe works, our ways of being together can not help but be out of focus for a time—as we grind new lenses through which to see our "new" world.
Based on the 3 Ps, I believe the following principles can be applied to leadership at all levels of all types of organizations, rebalancing our existence. As in past revolutions, these principles will not last long and must be constantly revisited to match what we know about the world and our place in it.
1. Self-control vs. Control Others
We are responsible ONLY for our own actions - trying to get other people to do or not do something is a waste of energy. At best we get compliance and at worst opposition that damages the entire system. I can only be in charge of what I do and say—how I act in a situation. Rampant codependance has us claiming responsibility for others and relinquishing our own self-control placing the blame "out there." Learning to be more emotionally and socially intelligent is crucial to restoring the balance between the 3Ps by assuring that we know our own thoughts and feelings, and increasing the quality of our interactions with others.
2. Social Intelligence vs. Authoritarian Dependence
We are the authors of our own culture - leaderless organizations like Wikipedia and Burning Man show us that people want to take part in something that matters. Most people do not behave badly, and in fact, want to contribute to "the cause." Sustainable leadership involves making a space for people to be the best version of them selves, and even expecting that. This also means that we cannot rely on "professionals" to do our dirty work any longer. We must strive to understand each other. Some people are always going to upset the apple cart. We must take the time to understand why, instead of merely calling in the authorities and legislating against future abuse.
3. Diverse Whole vs. Fragmented Silos
Resistance is futile - I am not advocating that we become assimilated by the fictional Borg species in StarTrek, however, fighting over our differences only serves to keep the people-planet-profit equation out of balance. Our attempts to control profit have exploited both people and the planet. Our attempts to control nature have resulted in further planetary imbalance. Our attempts to legislate social justice have spawned countless non-profit and para-church organizations, still unable to balance basic human rights. Whatever I do to the planet or an animal or another human being, I am doing to myself. If I behave destructively, even in private, the whole system is affected. If I behave constructively, again, even in private, the whole system is also affected. In the same way that a hologram signal, when split, makes two identical smaller images of the original, we are quite possibly miniature, yet whole likenesses of the universe.
Hargeaves Seven Principles of Sustainability:
1. Depth (learning organizations)
2. Length (acting with both long- and short-term goals in mind, especially in terms of succession)
3. Breadth (collaborating instead of competing)
4. Justice (leadership that accounts for the bigger picture rather than one small piece of the pie)
5. Diversity (equilibrium equals death in a living system)
6. Resourcefulness (using resources and energy—both human and traditional—so they are not depleted)
7. Conservation (preserving purpose and organizational wisdom to learn)
Fullen's Eight Elements of Sustainability:
1. Public service with a moral purpose (supportive, responsive, and demanding depending on the circumstances)
2. Commitment to changing context at all levels (creating a community around new beliefs, where they can be practiced, expressed, and nurtured)
3. Lateral capacity building through networks (collaborating instead of competeing)
4. Intelligent accountability and verticle relationships (encompassing both capacity building and accountability)
5. Deep learning (reduce fear of failure, reduce assessment demands & ensure a range of data is collected both quantitative and qualitative, members at all levels of the system continue to learn)
6. Dual commitment to short-term and long-term results (holding the tension between the two)
7. Cyclical Energizing (contrary to conventional leadership wisdom: manage energy instead of time, seek stress instead of avoiding it, life is a series of sprints rather than a marathon, downtime as productive instead of wasted, purpose fuels performance instead of rewards)
8. The long lever of leadership
If a system is to be mobilized in the direction of sustainability, leadership at all levels must be the primary engine. The main work of these leaders is to help put into place the eight elemets of sustainability; all eight simultaneously feeding on each other. To do this, we need a system laced with leaders who are trained to think in bigger terms and to act in ways that affect larger parts of the system as a whole: the new theoreticians. (Fullan 27)