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A New Psychology for Sustainability Leadership


Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Steve Schein's new book, "A New Psychology for Sustainability Leadership: The Hidden Power of Ecological Worldviews" (published by Greenleaf Publishing and distributed by Stylus Publishing). You can buy the book here

By Steve Schein

Today, there are major changes happening inside a select group of the world’s largest corporations. In response to the Earth’s most pressing environmental problems, a growing number of the most recognizable multinational companies are transforming the way they do business.

These new developments hold great potential for our future. Using a process known as biomimicry, engineers are designing new products based on a more thorough understanding of how nature works. Using a tool known as lifecycle analysis, accountants are measuring the full environmental footprint of products, from resource extraction through the manufacturing supply chain, distribution, disposal and recovery. Large-scale collaborative efforts between multinational companies, environmental nonprofits and governments are leading to new systemic approaches to our most complex global environmental problems involving the oceans, farmlands, forests, river basins and our fellow species.

However, we all know this has not been close to enough. Whether as sustainability educators, corporate social responsibility (CSR) executives, environmental activists or simply concerned citizens, we worry about each new piece of depressing environmental news.

For those of us that follow the corporate sustainability movement, we know that only a relatively small percentage of progressive corporations are thoroughly integrating sustainability initiatives throughout their global organizations. We also know that only certain executives within these corporations are fully committed to sustainability as their highest priority. As a result, the quarterly earnings report is still the major driver in the corporate world, and CEOs with sustainability at the top of their agenda are few and far between.

A focus on corporate sustainability executives

During the last decade, the sustainability position in multinational corporations has grown considerably in influence. Beginning with the appointment of the first chief sustainability officer in 2004, today there are senior sustainability executives in hundreds of the world’s largest multinational companies. In many cases, the chief sustainability officer now reports directly to the CEO. These are highly influential individuals inside today’s global corporations.

Behind each major environmental announcement by a multinational CEO, a small group of executives dedicate themselves to a wide range of sustainability initiatives, much of it in the face of strong resistance. Their companies have tens of thousands of employees throughout the world. Their global supply chains affect millions of people. Their customers reach into the billions. On the one hand, we can blame corporations as a whole for the ecological crisis. However, when we consider their potential to radically reduce their impacts, reinvent their energy sources and repurpose their infrastructure to eventually restore Earth’s ecosystems, the sustainable business movement may be the single most important environmental movement in the world today. When we take into account how this affects the availability of food and water for the planet’s poorest people, a case can likewise be made that it is also the most important social justice movement.

Despite the global scale of their companies, the number of executives who champion sustainability initiatives on a daily basis is surprisingly small. Although much has been written about their accomplishments, we don’t know enough about their personal histories, their deeper motivations and how they think. We don’t know enough about how they think about nature, leadership, resistance and change. At its essence, we don’t know enough about what makes these types of global sustainability leader tick.

The limits of “sustainability”

At the same time, we have become aware of the limits of the term “sustainability." We know that it can mean very different things to different people. We have seen how it can be used narrowly to mean short-term economics, jobs and national security; or it can used expansively to mean a complete transformation to deeply ecological and restorative business models. Sadly, we have witnessed how sustainability can be misused and misunderstood. In our darkest moments, we fear that the sustainability movement has fallen well short of its overall goal to transform business and society.

We continue to ask ourselves: Why? Why, despite all the scientific evidence, don’t all senior executives have a strong sense of urgency about transforming business in response to climate change? Why doesn’t everyone see the clear and deep connections between our traditional ways of doing business and harming the ecosystems we depend on for life? Why is there so much resistance to change? Although we tell ourselves that politics, jobs and our fossil-fuel-dependent economy and culture are the obvious reasons, we continue to search for new answers.

I’ve written this book to ofer a new type of answer to these questions and a new place to look for solutions.

Cultivating a new psychology for sustainability

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of more than 50 books on global environmental issues, observes: “Every political movement has its psychological dimension. Persuading people to alter their behavior always involves probing motivations; activism begins with asking what makes people tick? The environmental movement is no exception.”

Although thousands of sustainability-related books, articles and corporate reports have been published in recent years, today little is known about the deeper psychological motivations of corporate sustainability leaders. Leadership consultant and human development researcher Barrett C. Brown observes that the more we understand how psychology and worldviews drive the behaviors required to lead sustainability initiatives, the more effectively we will be able to cultivate them, especially during times of complexity and rapid change.

As sustainability educators, executives and activists, we need to develop a new, shared understanding of what sustainability leadership must become. We need a new story, a new language and, most of all, a new psychology.

Ecological worldviews: A missing perspective

The research I share with you in this book draws on eight distinct social science traditions that have not been widely used to study corporate sustainability leadership. These include eco-psychology, deep ecology, ecological economics, social psychology, environmental sociology, indigenous studies and the new field of integral ecology. I also rely on developmental psychology research about how worldviews are constructed, how we interpret the world around us, and how this can change over the course of our lives.

Using key insights from these disciplines, I include in the book extensive quotations from my interviews with 75 global sustainability leaders in more than 40 multinational organizations. The interviews suggest that many of the most influential corporate sustainability leaders are motivated by their ecological worldviews, which can be thought of as the deep mental patterns and ways of seeing our relationship to the natural world. Ecological worldviews can also be thought of as our cognitive and perceptual capacity to see the world through the lens of ecology, which is essentially the relationship of species and their environment.

In the minds of sustainability leaders, ecological worldviews can enhance the perception of our interdependence with the Earth’s planetary ecosystems, which can strengthen the depth of their commitment in the face of continued resistance. The interviews further reveal expressions of what developmental psychologists call post-conventional worldviews, which can enhance their ability to effectively communicate to diverse audiences, collaborate across boundaries and unlock capacity to lead large-scale transformational change.

MIT professor emeritus and long-time sustainability scholar John Ehrenfeld reflects that, in order to address sustainability fully and meaningfully, we must make fundamental shifts in the way we think. Referring to our capacity to lead transformational change, he invites us to consider that, in the face of opposition, an individual can always change his or her own worldview.

For too long we have assumed that all multinational corporations, and by default all executives inside them, have the same worldview. If we are to advance the field of sustainability leadership beyond its current limitations, it is vital to understand how global sustainability leaders think, how their worldviews have been formed, and how this influences their actions.

By shining a light on the psychological dimensions of a large group of sustainability executives in multinational corporations, my hope is this book will open up new conversations and new research across a wide range of social science disciplines in the context of corporate sustainability leadership.

Ultimately, this can lead to a new psychology for sustainability that can be integrated into public and private institutions everywhere to support the development of the next generation of sustainability leaders for the benefit of all life on Earth.

Steve Schein is a sustainability leadership educator, researcher, and executive coach. After 25 years in the corporate world and 10 in academia, he sees the evolution of business leadership and education towards ecological sustainability a global imperative. To that end, his research focuses on the development of ecological and post-conventional worldviews in the setting of multinational corporate leadership. He has been a member of the faculty at Southern Oregon University since 2005, where he founded the certificate program in sustainability leadership. Prior to joining the faculty at SOU, he was a certified public accountant (CPA) and former CEO with senior management experience in several companies. Dr. Schein’s research has been published in The Journal of Corporate Citizenship, The Journal of Management of Global Sustainability, and presented at numerous conferences on corporate social and environmental responsibility. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for Net Impact and the GEOS Institute.

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