Sustainable leadership — principles and instruments

25/08/2010 / Kaj

It was 20 years ago that I first met Karl-Henrik Robert, founder of The Natural Step Foundation and we together found time to develop ideas and strategies for leadership within the area of sustainable development. It was a time of inspiration and knowledge seeking. For me it became a question of laying the foundation for increased understanding of the game rules and principles for long-term and systematic work towards sustainable social progress.
Today, 20 years on, I once again met Karl-Henrik, who, in my interview , gave a good picture of the issues that today drive many business leaders forward. However, the complexity of the sustainability issue is so complex that without a scientific approach to principles and goals, the journey will be exceedingly difficult.
In a society fighting its way through a deep financial depression and facing oil crises, water shortages and climate threats, active leadership is required in all types of organisations. As Karl-Henrik also correctly points out, those who understand and can define the term sustainability and set goals also have the possibility of finding the correct tools in a complicated business development.

The work of Respect Table and other Respect networks during the past ten years emphasises the importance of defining the issues in a long term sustainable business development. We have identified more than 25 issues, which in different ways touch upon the strategic decision-making for a CEO. Systematically setting principles and goals for sustainability work makes things much easier. (Read more in the reports available at on Business Leaders Initiative on Climate Change (BLICC) and Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights (BLIHR)
Efficiency in strategic decision-making (Strategy Execution) is also an important part of a leader’s daily routines. A study published in the Harvard Business Review – On point – Make Green Profitable, emphasises the significance of the ability to effectuate strategic decisions. The complex sustainability issues gives the leader even greater problems in effectuating strategic decisions. All too often failure to effectuate strategic decisions leads to a leader beginning to change their organisation. The study maintained that it is more important to highlight issues on the right of decision and the way the issues are communicated within the organisation. The findings from five years of working on the study show that well-defined right of decision and well-oiled communication within the organisation is decisive if one is to succeed in effectuating decision-making in the organisation. In the complex world of sustainability issues, this proficiency becomes even more important.
It is easy nowadays to find both scientific grounds and business motivation within the area of sustainability. A leader who has not yet formulated goals and a strategy for their organisation within the area of sustainability should, for their own sake, take up the new challenges. If not they risk damaging their own and their organisation’s brand considerably.

The risks are many for organisations that do not understand and possess knowledge of sustainable business development. Karl-Henrik Robert has an insight into this knowledge and an ability to develop leadership pedagogically within the area of sustainable development. It is a well-developed historical science that was taught by The Natural Step. It was no new science as many believed when The Natural Step was developed into a business concept. It was a pedagogical approach. Scientific expertise with a pedagogical model that gave me the power to change as an individual and a business leader within the organisation or company in which I worked.

Kaj Embren



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