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| 3 minutes read

What Makes Sustainable Leadership?

With Earth Day fast approaching, the time is especially fitting to celebrate the planet and reflect upon our relationship with it. Many businesses across the globe take this month to address their environmental impact, while others (such as Patagonia, IKEA, and Adidas) launch effective Earth Day campaigns. It is increasingly an occasion to recognise not only environmental stewardship but also the intimate connectedness of social responsibility and financial impact: the three concepts at the core of Sustainability. 

As an executive search professional, the questions that spring to my mind are: What is the role of leadership on the sustainability journey and what makes this leadership effective? 

Defining Sustainable Leadership

In the face of ‘increasing social and environmental problems arising from economic development, there is a serious imbalance between economic benefits, social responsibility, and environmental protection in the process of enterprise operation.’ Combatting this imbalance lies at the heart of sustainable development, which aims for comprehensive progress towards the achievement of economic, social, and environmental goals. 

Sustainable leadership is the product of the integration of sustainable development and leadership

Inspiring and driving action through leadership can take many forms. One is the Chief Sustainability Officer; over the last few years, there has been a significant rise in the number of companies appointing a CSO, and, even more recently, rather than coming up through the sustainability function, these individuals are tending to come through via functions such as finance and R&D. Another is the ecopreneur, a business founder with an environmental purpose. Sustainability leadership may likewise take the form of an ESG-minded investor, or a CEO who convenes a cross-functional sustainability committee. 

ESG concept of environmental, Businessman hand holding wooden cube block with ESG icon with copy space, Businessman Planing an ESG Project on laptop. Green Energy, Renewable and Sustainable Resources.

Key Components

On the surface, leadership in this sphere shares many crucial facets with other, often overlapping, leadership domains. These include a clear vision and strategy – which truly incorporates sustainability goals into organisational objectives, setting measurable targets and timelines – and an innovation mindset, embracing technological advancements and the need for creative problem solving. 

A means of delving deeper, however, lies in the 2011 Cambridge Sustainability Leadership Model

Although the elements outlined are not particular to sustainability leaders, they form a schema for responding to sustainability challenges. The model was created against a backdrop of sustainability leadership aimed at effecting profound change; it establishes three major components: the context wherein the leader operates; the leader’s characteristics; and the leader’s actions. This framework brings not only clarity and structure to the concept, but also a way for leaders to assess areas of focus or improvement.


Challenges and Opportunities

In 2010, the then CEO of Johnson Matthey, Neil Carson, compared sustainability leadership to the quality revolution of the 1980s: ‘What happened was companies either died or they got quality. One day this is going to be the same for sustainability. But there’s an interim period where that’s only true for some companies.’ He predicted a period of ten years or possibly longer before sustainability leadership and its importance no longer needed to be pointed out. Indeed, more than ten years have passed and the state of sustainability remains mixed. Merely half of senior management teams are prioritising sustainability risks, opportunities, and impacts, with just a quarter of companies allocating adequate capital to sustainability initiatives.

Sustainability reporting is a major factor.

 ‘The transformative power of robust reporting cannot be underestimated as organisations look to accelerate their progress to net zero,’ 

states the PwC Sustainability Practice Leader, Lynne Baber. 2024 is a pivotal year for implementing sustainability-related regulation, including enhanced sustainability reporting, and most companies have a lot of work to do to meet new requirements. Beyond reporting, a recent Deloitte article identifies four key themes for companies to address this year: circular design, supply chain sustainability, decarbonisation, and avoiding greenwashing. While these present a challenge to many executives, effective sustainability leaders have the opportunity to ensure business resilience and a positive global impact.

One of the most important aspects of business resilience is talent. A company with leadership committed to sustainability is an attractive employer when it comes to new talent. As David Ingleson, AMS Sector Managing Director, notes in his exploration of ‘EcoMagnetism’,

 ‘Principles of fairness, inclusion and purpose are inextricably linked to employer attractiveness.’ 

Companies such as the Global 100 perform highly in terms of investing in green solutions, diversity and inclusion, and fair remuneration metrics; these organisations are best placed to attract ‘talent that are motivated by purposeful and long-term careers.’

In your search for sustainable leadership, contact our AMS Executive Search team, whose practice leads have an holistic and nuanced approach to securing the best individuals for your organisation. For a conversation, give us a call or get in touch via LinkedIn or email.

At AMS, we are committed to progressing our sustainability agenda in the areas of equality, wellbeing, climate change and support to local communities. You can find our 2023 Sustainability report here.


ams, esg, leadership