What’s the role of leaders in advancing the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals?


  • Picture of Professor Wendy M. Purcell PhD FRSA
    Professor Wendy M. Purcell PhD FRSA
    Leader, academic, consultant, coach, researcher, educator, social inclusion, transforming lives

Professor Wendy M. Purcell PhD FRSA shares contributions from a recent RSA Sustainability Network event.

The recent RSA Sustainability Network event explored Sustainability Leadership using a Global Café format with discussions primed by an Expert Panel. The discussion yielded some clear advice for future-facing leaders – identifying what to stop doing and what to start or continue doing in order to advance delivery toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

High on the list for leaders to cull were short-termism, being reactive and paying lip service to sustainability.  One group coined a new term, flip-flappingdescribing leaders who jump from one ‘green’ initiative to another, without connecting the dots into a deliberate strategic intent rooted in sustainable development.  The clear call was for leaderto connect with the SDGs in articulating a purposeful one planet mission.  The ask was for leaders to be more agile and pursue radical solutions to do well and do good.  The group’s rallying cry for leaders was to ‘Act, don’t react’. 

Recognizing sustainability needs to be led, the superhero model of leadership was quashed.  The call was to recognize leaders at every level, harnessing the power of social networks to engage in “joined up doing”.  Leaders need to stop waiting and start “walking the talk”, with sustainability very much a goal for today.  

Rather than self-interest and doing less bad, the pursuit of shared interests and doing ‘more good should be the leaders charge.  This approach demands new measures of value, taking a more holistic systems thinking approach to champion sustainability.  Leaders were encouraged to focus on closing the gap between knowing there is something to do about sustainable development and actually doing something about it.   

Communication, it was agreed, was a key enabler of change in pursuit of sustainable development.  The advice to leaders was to make it personal and use story-telling to connect people to the bigger ‘Why?’ of sustainability. Communicating urgency to act now without creating fear in an organization was considered essential to driving transformational change demanded by the SDGs.  Future-facing leaders are authentic, trustful and able to frame sustainability as the ‘new normal’, working with activist stakeholders to deliver a future where no-one is left behind now and for future generations. 

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