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Why organisations require sustainable leadership

By People Reporter
Wednesday, July 15th, 2020
A medic holds a vaccine. The world has been on the search for a vaccine for the coronavirus. Photo/PD/COURTESY

Judy Njino 

As we began the United Nations Decade of Action, it was with an acute realisation that we were not on track to meet the 2030 deadline to transform our world.

Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, further revealing fundamental weaknesses in the global system and the precarious nature of our progress to date.

With less than 4,000 days to 2030, we need to turn commitment into action. As we set out to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, now is the time for all companies to raise their ambition for people, planet and prosperity.

For transformation at the level and scale needed, organisations need to focus on making sustainability sustainable.

This is more than a matter of strategy, policy and process — it is fundamentally about leadership and people.

Leaders on boards and in the C-suite have a huge opportunity to make sustainability integral to their organisation’s ethos and leadership, yet only in 4 per cent of non-executive and senior executive positions is sustainability experience or mindset a requirement.

A broad set of stakeholders — including customers, employees, investors and suppliers — challenge companies to respond to changing societal values, climate change concerns and finite natural resources and economic and political instability.

As a result, the criteria and economic models that ensure commercial success are shifting.

Successful businesses will be those that meet the needs of as many people as possible, utilise as few resources as possible and engage with as many of their stakeholders as possible.

The Sustainable Development Goals provide a concrete roadmap for addressing many of these inequities, but the evidence is clear that we are not on track to meet them.

While there have been bright spots in a number of areas, advancement towards the SDGs has been slow or even reversed. Climate change, loss of biodiversity, extreme poverty and widening social and health inequalities continue to present existential threats to our future.

Successful delivery of the 2030 Agenda requires engagement from all businesses. Now, more than ever, business leaders face both an opportunity and an obligation to play their part in this effort.

The most senior leaders of the organisation — the CEO, their executive team and the board — are ultimately responsible for its success or failure.

They alone are uniquely positioned to drive the transformation needed by integrating sustainability into business strategy and operations in a manner that supports the long-term viability of the business. This calls for full ownership by the top leadership.

A recent study by Russell Reynolds and the UN Global Compact found that organisations must make it clear that a sustainable mindset and the four leadership attributes critical to future success and viability: multilevel systems thinking, stakeholder inclusion, disruptive innovation and long-term activation — are requirements to be a senior leader.

Firstly, sustainable leaders should adopt multilevel systems thinking by going beyond a deep understanding of their own organisation system and incorporate the interplay with the larger business, societal and environmental systems around them.

Secondly, sustainable leaders should not manage stakeholders; rather include them by actively involving them in the decision-making process.

Thirdly, sustainable leaders should possess the courage to challenge traditional approaches.

They cut through bureaucracy to drive the breakthrough innovation that is needed to find novel solutions that do away with a trade-off between profitability and sustainability.

Lastly, towards the long term, sustainable leaders set audacious goals and drive concerted action and investments in the pursuit of them.

The systemic challenges the world faces today mean that sustainable leadership cannot be confined to a small minority; it requires companies to cultivate leadership at all levels.  — The writer is Executive Director, Global Compact Network Kenya—[email protected]

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