The Sustainability Leadership Opportunity: Are You a ‘Can Do’ Leader?

green pencil leaderBy George Basile, PhD and Bruno Sarda, Arizona State University Global Institute of Sustainability  

Sustainability is not a theoretical pursuit. It is about decisions we make now. Universities must enable graduates to develop the actions that we use today for a sustainable tomorrow.”
– Arizona State University President Michael Crow

The word “sustainability” means a lot of different things to different people. When we talk about global sustainability though, there is a simple definition: find ways to live today that allow all of us to thrive today and tomorrow. Unfortunately, because of a focus on fixing problems versus seeking opportunity, the word “sustainability” has a tendency of turning into a conversation about what you “can’t do” rather than what you “can do.”

The “can’t do” conversation is, by its very nature, a discussion of inaction, of intention rather than execution. In order to bridge the gap between intention and execution, the world needs effective and determined leaders who know how to use tools such as strategy, global context, communication and an emerging suite of new leadership skills to make the necessary change our planet and society needs to “thrive today and tomorrow.”

Education is a central driver for leadership to move from “can’t” to “can” and from problem to opportunity. Understanding new contexts and needs is the first step in developing effective action, and it must be developed by using the real world as an educational and living laboratory. Sustainability programs must meet the needs of a diverse set of students, from newly minted graduates to senior executives, and extend beyond traditional educational structures and settings.

Institutions such as ASU understand this, as is evidenced by the establishment of its Global Institute of Sustainability, a university-wide institute developed to extend sustainability education and practices across the entire university and partner with enterprises at all scales. This institute and its School of Sustainability, the nation’s first comprehensive school in this arena, leads a university-wide operational sustainability effort as a living laboratory for understanding sustainability action. And their development of a new Executive Master’s for Sustainability Leadership is further proof of the university’s commitment to identifying and enabling solutions to our global sustainability challenges.

What about business?

Is a “can do” versus a “can’t do” sustainability agenda really possible for today’s businesses?  The stated desire is clear as demonstrated by the 2010 UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO study that showed that 93 percent of corporate CEOs felt that sustainability was “critical to the future success of their companies.” So, why are organizations often slow to take action at the scale that sustainability challenges and opportunities require?

Enhanced leadership is needed to move companies beyond mere compliance and reporting to embedding sustainability throughout corporate operations and within the entire corporate strategy. Currently, when considering sustainability as a guiding goal and a success platform, one can put businesses into four general tiers: Tier 1: compliance and business-as-usual; Tier 2: compliance plus eco-efficiency; Tier 3: sustainability as a core strategy; Tier 4: actively changing the world to match sustainability-intelligent business models.

Since the majority of businesses are currently Tier 1 and 2 and standard business tools and cases are the dominant force, then leadership typically looks like business expertise. However, business-as-usual, even when expert, is insufficient. This is why Tier 1 and 2 organizations tend to get stuck. The secret is to develop Tier 3 and 4-level leadership capability. Those who lead at Tier 3 and 4 can also marshal the teams and skills to lead and transform Tier 1 and 2.

But what does this take?

Changing how we build our strategies

Strategy increasingly has become a task of risk versus benefit, forecasting by looking back at yesterday’s issues, and attempting to predict what the future holds. Backing into the future won’t work for sustainability. Equally, setting the wrong goals will get you to the wrong place. An unpredictable future requires the capability and capacity to develop scientifically robust descriptions of success and then strategically advance flexible action pathways combined with adaptive management. Knowing where you are going by having sustainability built into your vision of success, and at the right levels, is the first step in innovating your way forward.

Seeing and understanding global context

“Think global, act local” was the rallying cry of an entire generation. Today, the simple reality is “act local, act global.” Putting in the “thinking” part remains an enormous leadership challenge. Today, businesses are connected from local to global and back no matter what their size. Mom-and-Pop shops source globally whether they know it or not. Global corporations drive local opportunity and options on a day-to-day basis from consumer goods and services to jobs, policies and infrastructure. Not only understanding but developing the skills to keep up, enhance, extend and apply global context and connectivity to create sustainable solutions is a new capacity that is at the core of “can do” leadership.

Communicating for opportunity and action

The stories we tell are what enable us to see what is and what is not. A leader can get strategy and context right, but if related narratives are not built to engagingly share the vision and describe the relevant opportunities, then action is unlikely to follow. Creatively narrating a proactive future that goes beyond removing problems to a future that highlights pathways for sustainable innovation and increased success is central to leadership for a sustainable tomorrow.

Leadership and sustainability for “can do” is also about “how to do”

Core aspects of great leadership such as listening, learning, managing risk, building great teams, developing effective visions and goals, and innovating never go out of style. However, a new class of skills must be developed and applied for leaders to execute in an increasingly global, unpredictable world where the idea of infinite physical growth is being replaced with infinite change and value creation for a whole planet. Enhancing leadership skills for stewardship and engagement at all levels become critical. Knowing how to move “can do” ideas that do not fit into today’s standard model of business-as-usual to effective “are doing” actions becomes the hallmark of great leadership for sustainable success.

A special role for executive leadership with Can-Do, Tier 4 capability

Now is the time to extend our capacity for and capability in sustainability leadership. The breakthroughs we need will come only with significant effort and efficacy of executive-level leadership from levels and functions across an organization. We need those who can lead from Tier 1 to Tier 4 across all our enterprises.

ASU is supporting the potential for breakthrough leadership for sustainable success and with the launch of their new Executive Master’s for Sustainability Leadership in January of 2014. The program addresses and integrates these four core areas of sustainability leadership and “can do”: strategy, global context, communications and leadership. Built with its students in mind, the Executive Masters for Sustainability Leadership is a 13-month online program with three weeklong face-to-face immersive sessions – two on ASU’s Tempe campus at the beginning and end of the program and an international session at the midway point. Participants will use their own organizations and contexts as platforms for learning, developing a unique portfolio of knowledge and leadership skills. Graduates will be ready to lead at any level and bring a sustainability and success lens to all that they do.

For more information about ASU’s Executive Master’s for Sustainability Leadership, visit


Executive Master’s for Sustainability Leadership:


George Basile, PhD, Senior Sustainability Scientist, Arizona State University Global Institute of Sustainability

Professor of Practice, Arizona State University School of Sustainability

Dr. Basile is an internationally recognized creative thinker and practitioner in the field of sustainability. Basile started out on a traditional academic career path, with a B.S. in Physics from University of California-Irvine followed by a Ph.D. in Biophysics from University of California-Berkeley and postdoctoral at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. He has held teaching positions at Berkeley and Stanford, and helped develop Green MBA programs in the United States and Sweden. He currently is a part of the teaching faculty at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University and serves on the boards of nonprofit organizations and new ventures, and advises Fortune 500 clients on sustainable business practices and integrated operational and marketing strategies. He served as the R&D head of The Natural Step, an accelerator of global sustainability, and co-founded Thrive Unlimited.

Bruno Sarda, Director of Global Sustainability Operations, Dell

Adjunct Faculty, School of Sustainability

Consultant, Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiative, Global Institute of Sustainability

Bruno Sarda is the Director of Global Sustainability Operations at Dell and responsible for the operational strategy of Dell’s global sustainability efforts. This includes governance, information strategy, measurement and reporting, as well as supporting advocacy, policy and objective setting across internal and external stakeholder engagement. Prior to making a shift to sustainability in 2010, Sarda held a number of E-Business leadership positions over 15+ years at Dell and Charles Schwab. Sarda is also adjunct faculty for the Arizona State University School of Sustainability and a consultant for the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, a program within the Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU.

[image credit: Didi: Flickr cc]

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One response

  1. Great article – clear to me that we need “can do” possibility-oriented leaders that are re-inventing work in existing industries. I told a young woman (college junior majoring in environmental science and sustainability that we need every major to require a sustainability minor, until we entirely reinvent curricula for these disciplines that integrate sustainability into the fabric of “how we do” everything from architectural design, engineering (all disciplines), marketing, economics, accounting to dental hygiene and cosmetology! What discipline/industry does not need to be viewed through the sustainability lens? And the possibilities for re-invention and innovation are amazing!

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