Most leaders don’t understand that leadership is critical to sustainability
An anecdote from another consultant this week really resonated with me. He had a meeting with a C-level executive at a major client about an aspect of sustainability (you’ll have guessed by now that I’m being deliberately vague to protect my colleague). The executive got rather hot under the collar because the consultant asked questions pertaining to the level of leadership on this issue. The meeting didn’t end well.
This has happened to me many a time – at middle or senior management levels. When I used to do simple waste minimisation visits on behalf of the now defunct Envirowise, there was always the point where I was taken to the operations manager or production manager as the environmental manager, who had typically invited me in, couldn’t answer the questions. So I would sit in the former’s office, politely working through my questions while the temperature plummeted. Fierce glances would be fired at the environmental manager who would eventually cut the meeting short.
There’s a big lesson for sustainability practitioners here – whether internal or external. People don’t like to be challenged on their own patch. And the further up the reporting chain you go, the worse it gets.
This is exacerbated by the fact that many senior managers see paying lip service to sustainability as ‘leadership’. It’s not – leadership on sustainability almost always involves driving step changes in the way the organisation operates, not just finding the right words.
Unless you have built up a really trusting relationship with that individual, if you even imply that the putative ‘leader’ is not really leading, things can get very heated, very quickly.
My preferred approach is to help the leader work out for themselves what they need to be doing. Easier said than done, but it does work – and without any bruised egos.