It is easy to feel hopeless or powerless when reading news about issues of global challenges like climate change and social injustice. Or to feel that our individual roles and capabilities in tackling these crises are unimportant. 

However, we all have the power to make change happen. 

In fact, it has been argued that a small minority of citizens, 3.5%, “have the power to change the world” and there are numerous examples of impactful movements started by individual and community acts of leadership.

In this article, we explore what sustainability leadership is, why it is important, and how everyone can harness their leadership skills to drive toward a more sustainable world.

What is leadership?

Leadership can be defined as,

“the ability to establish vision and direction, to influence and align others towards a common purpose, and to empower and inspire people to achieve success”.

Association for Project Management

There are many other definitions of leadership, often reserved for those in positions of power, like CEOs or government officials. However, true leadership is not authority or control; it is applicable to anyone. Furthermore, leadership in all areas of society is needed to maintain and grow momentum in addressing climate change and other complex environmental and social injustices.

Paddlers from the Backbone Campaign leading the protest against Shell Oil’s plans

What skills do sustainability leaders need?

Leadership is about taking action toward a goal — this is something anyone can do. However, there are certain skills that can be developed to help pave the way for creating positive change. These skills allow leaders to engage with family, friends, and co-workers, to influence climate sceptics, build relationships, and achieve sustainability goals.

  1. Listen to the concerns and views of those around you. Take time to understand issues and barriers to change. For example, if trying to influence family, friends, or work colleagues to adopt more sustainable lifestyles then listen to their perspectives first.
  2. Effective communication is essential for sustainability leaders. Try to communicate concisely, in a way that will be easily understood and relevant to those you are speaking to. For example, if you are trying to campaign for better cycling infrastructure in your city use “positive messaging to win majority support”.
  3. Creativity and problem-solving will help when considering complex situations. Brainstorm potential solutions and engage others to develop ideas.
  4. Negotiation is critical for sustainability leaders attempting to navigate opposing perspectives and to convince sustainability sceptics. Negotiation helps to build common ground and find consensus.
  5. Critical thinking is needed to engage with and understand information about sustainability issues. The volume of conflicting news and politicisation of issues can be overwhelming. Developing a critical mindset can help sustainability leaders to better navigate this information to educate themselves and those within their sphere of influence. 
  6. Influence and educate those around you who are sceptical or disengaged. Your sustainability leadership role is crucial in expanding the knowledge of those who might not seek out information otherwise. Try using these tools for engaging people on climate change. 

This list is not exhaustive and leadership styles will differ from person to person. Key to success is listening, collaboration and being open to a diverse range of perspectives when working towards goals.

What kind of action can sustainability leaders take?

Lead through lifestyle

Individuals can demonstrate sustainability leadership through easy lifestyle changes. These actions may already be familiar to the sustainability savvy and regular readers of Curious Earth, so if you are already doing them why not use your leadership skills to influence others to adopt more sustainable lifestyles?

  1. Reduce energy consumption at home by turning off lights, unplugging electronics when not in use, and installing energy-efficient light bulbs.
  2. Use public transport, cycle, or walk. According to research from the University of Oxford, “choosing a bike over a car just once a day can reduce the average person’s transportation-related emissions by 67%” 
  3. Reduce meat consumption, “overall, animal-based foods tend to have a higher footprint than plant-based”.
  4. Support renewable energy by choosing energy providers that use renewable energy sources. If you can afford it, invest in renewable energy projects. 
  5. Educate those around you. Talk about sustainability, share articles and the exciting or scary facts.

Read other Curious Earth articles like, 12 water saving tips to benefit your bank account and the environment for more inspiration on how you can demonstrate sustainability leadership every day.  

Lead communities and beyond

Join a movement and help to expand it, or start one!

There are countless examples of inspiring sustainability leaders of all ages from across the globe who have started movements that have gone on to generate positive global impact. Learn about these movements and tips you can take from them to inspire people around you. Don’t forget, you can also inspire online communities by using social media to share important stories. 

  • Barefoot College founded by social activist Sanjit “Bunker” Roy is a nonprofit organisation based in India that has trained thousands of women to become solar engineers. The program has had a significant impact on reducing energy poverty and increasing access to renewable energy in these communities. 
  • Fridays For Future is a global climate strike movement started by Greta Thunberg that has sparked policy changes around the world.
  • Extinction Rebellion is an international movement established by Gail Bradbrook, Simon Bramwell, Roger Hallam and eight others. The group pressures governments to take action on climate change and draw attention to the urgency of the climate crisis.
  • The Sunrise Movement is a youth-led movement started by Sara Blazevic and Varshini Prakash in the United States. It has been instrumental in pushing climate change to the forefront of the national political conversation.
  • The Chipko Movement started by Sunderlal Bahuguna inspired rural women to protest deforestation and led to increased government action to protect forests.

Start or join a community project

Demonstrate sustainability leadership by helping to build more sustainable communities. Examples of projects include, tree planting, community gardening, composting initiatives, litter picking or campaigning for better cycling infrastructure in your area. These opportunities are open to anyone.

The following empowering examples can be used as a starting point to think about how you can lead and collaborate with your community to change.

  • Young climate activists in Ghana are taking action to combat plastic pollution in their local environment.
  • Bicycle Dutch is a blog started by a Dutch citizen, Mark Wagenbuur, that has been instrumental in raising awareness about cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands and has inspired similar initiatives in other cities around the world.
  • Gil Peñalosa, founded Ciclovías in Bogota a program that closes major streets to car traffic on Sundays and holidays and opens them up for cycling and other forms of active transportation.

Plan Bici taking out a group of school children to encourage bike riding round Bogota
  • Mikael Colville-Andersen founded Copenhagenize, a consultancy and advocacy group based in Copenhagen, Denmark, that has been instrumental in promoting the development of cycling infrastructure in cities around the world.

Advocate for policy change

Individuals can advocate for climate action by contacting their elected representatives, participating in demonstrations and protests, and supporting organisations that work on climate-related issues.

  • In 2015, residents of Flint, Michigan, allegedly wrote an open letter to the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, urging him to take action on the city’s lead water crisis. The letter helped to galvanise public support for the issue and led to increased government action to address the crisis.

Leadership at work, school, or university

Places of work and study provide excellent opportunities to engage a range of diverse perspectives and to collaborate over creative solutions for change. Test your leadership skills by forming a working group with colleagues or other students. Support from this group will help you to challenge your institution to assess its processes, what it makes, and the purpose it serves.

You can also identify opportunities for group training sessions to educate and spread awareness of critical sustainability issues throughout the institution.

Collaborating to distribute cheap solar energy in Rajasthan

This article has listed just a few examples of actions that can be taken to encourage more sustainable lifestyles for individuals, communities and beyond. What action can you take to demonstrate sustainability leadership?

Be Curious!

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