Leadership Characteristics and Sustainability in Business

How can we equip future business leaders to impact the sustainable business space?

Maura Kelly

My research is a meta-analysis of the studies of the characteristics of the best business leaders spearheading environmental sustainability efforts in their respective companies. I gathered data on these leaders through reports, sustainability indices, management journals, biographies, and case studies of model businesses; determined the similarities, differences, and potential biases; studied their various management and change management styles; and synthesized the most common and reliable indicative traits. I also explored how these traits could be developed in students at various levels of education, so as to equip the next generation of students with strong understanding of and passion for sustainability.
The interplay between my major in management consulting and my minor in sustainability has fostered my interest in business structures, ethics, leadership, and the role of sustainability in those areas. Although the term “sustainability” covers a broad spectrum of topics in the study of business, social sustainability, my studies focus specifically on environmental sustainability with respect to economic sustainability. Definitions of sustainability vary, but one rather reliable definition comes from the World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Bruntland Commission), defining sustainable development as “development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This capstone has given me the opportunity to explore the concept of sustainability leadership further, to determine what has already been studied and established, and to discover what new opportunities exist for research, analysis, and improvement.

As I have come to learn during this research, the study of sustainability leadership has grown significantly over the last twenty years, as leadership scholars have begun defining it within the context of a changing global climate and its role in the world of business. I am certainly not the first person interested in exploring the commonalities between leaders of sustainable companies, the qualities that them apart from other leaders, and how these patterns can be fostered in other businesses. This research, at times, was rather subjective and qualitative, and at other times, more objective and quantitative. I believe the differences in approaches are a testament to the vast and complicated base of subject matter that seeks to understand the intersections of sustainability, leadership, ethics, and the business world. This capstone project serves as my examination of those intersections.

Climate change deniers and business traditionalists would be the first to say that sustainability does not matter for business, or further, that sustainability measures do little more than decrease profitability. The Mendoza College of Business would be the first to refute these statements, including sustainability as one of the pillars of their education mission. Climate change experts, economists, and sustainability educators agree that sustainability in business is more important now than ever.

Joseph DesJardins, business ethics scholar, makes perhaps the most succinct summary of environmental issues and the role of business in their solutions. He first emphasizes the intertwined nature of the set of economic, ecological, and ethical issues we face across the globe, such as finding the necessities of clean water, food, shelter, health care, education, and jobs, while also facing the added challenges of extreme poverty, political repression, war, famine, and disease. A growing population and unprecedented globalization further exacerbate these problems by ensuring that local problems and challenges will directly impact people living elsewhere. He also explains the challenges and opportunities for business in the context of these issues:

“Addressing these challenges will require significant global economic activity, integrated with social and political leadership. However, the earth’s biosphere, ultimately the only source for all this economic activity, is already under sever threat from just the type of economic growth that many assume will be the solution to these challenges.

“Such factors require that business in the twenty-first century be practiced in a way that is economically vibrant enough to address the real needs of billions of people, yet ecologically informed so that the earth’s capacity to support life is not diminished be that activity, and ethically sensitive enough that human dignity is not lost of violated in the process”.

Leadership is a hugely important factor that decides the sustainable strategies that business will take. Because of both the need for and the opportunities in economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable business, a clear and current meta analysis of business leadership in sustainability is an important contribution to exploring what works, and how we can foster effective sustainability leadership in emerging business professionals.

The research I encountered was vast and diverse, and stretched into many different areas of study. I broke my analysis down to explore the information that existed – and varied – on the definitions and discussions of sustainability leadership; the patterns and similarities of those leaders; the opportunities and issues with sustainability and change management; the examples of model businesses and the complications that arise with rankings; and the opportunities and limitations in sustainability leadership education. By analyzing some of the vast body of research, I noticed some important patterns.
Firstly, there are some astounding sources that attempt to define and understand the qualities of the leaders that run the most environmentally sustainable businesses. This was my original interest for this project, but I quickly realized that to learn everything there was to know was impossible, but to try to find and synthesize some of the most important research could be just as important. Understanding some of these similar qualities of sustainability leaders – such as strong morality, holistic thinking, open-mindedness, self-awareness, empathy, and vision, amongst other styles, skills, and knowledge – allows me to analyze my own strengths and weaknesses as I move forward in my business career, and to be more conscious of the leaders around me.
Secondly, there are significant inconsistencies in the material, which lends to the
difficulty of establishing a coherent understanding and position on sustainability itself, and further, the discussion and instruction of it. Perhaps one of the most poignant illustrations of this point that I found was in my exploration of the different rankings of “the most sustainable businesses.” In the three rankings I compared, the three top-ten lists compiled thirty unique companies. This is a result of the varied inputs that generate these rankings, and exemplifies the difficulties in comparing, understanding, and trusting these studies. Other examples of these kinds of inconsistences were found all over my research, from the definitions of sustainability to the stances on education. A more unified body of language, or perhaps a clear, recognized, and respected leader on sustainability could help to make the topics of sustainability (especially in leadership) more digestible for everyone from a general audience to business students and business leaders.
Lastly, there are important implications for future business leaders in this sustainability space, and I believe that these far-reaching sources of research demonstrate the ability of sustainability to impact numerous areas of business, from education to operations. Change management experts and consultants give sustainability leaders the skills to transform their businesses into ones that not only include, but also strategically utilize sustainability efforts in their operations. Educators, especially those now beginning to incorporate sustainability into business school curriculums, are equipping students with both practical, technical business skills and a forward-thinking forum to internalize the mission of corporate social responsibility.
Business magazines and management journals, many of which I analyzed in this research, offer business leaders, students, and consumers information on sustainability as more than just a fad or a buzzword, but as an ecological necessity and strategic advantage. While inconsistencies, biases, and contradictions in the research may present challenges, the material is promising as well: with solid skills, strong education, and coherent information, environmental sustainability leadership has the potential to transform business and make a positive impact on the environment in years to come.