Lessons Linking Leadership & Sustainability

Studies on leadership indicate that individuals are most effective when there is a balance between authority and responsibility.  Given the urgent need to improve global sustainability, are there lessons here we can apply to our work and personal lives? 

Many years ago while participating in a CEO mentoring programme I was introduced to the concept of balancing authority (taking control of my actions and decisions) and responsibility (taking ownership of the consequences of my actions and decisions).  From a leadership perspective this was a “lightbulb” moment.  I drew up the quadrant below to remind myself of this, not just for my own management development, but as a possible explanation of the actions and attitudes of others.

While the balance of the top right quadrant is the ideal state, I have frequently come across those who feel huge responsibility, but believe they have limited authority to act.  Equally it is easy to see high-profile examples of those who claim and execute significant authority, but seem to have no recognition or ownership of their responsibility or the consequences.

Equally concerning from a sustainability perspective is the lowest left quadrant; those who feel they have neither authority to change anything nor responsibility for their (in)actions.

It’s easy to understand why this happens.  When we look at sustainability as a problem which could be solved, we quickly run up the scale of action needed, going from personal to local, then regional, national, international and finally worldwide.  When you consider the scale of the issue it’s hard to see why individual actions count, particularly if you are not a CEO or world leader. 

In fact, we need to reverse this process, recognising that the individual is in fact the essential component of all of these levels, whether as a consumer, society member, employee or employer.  Again this reflects back on leadership theory – we need to empower and encourage the individual to participate and contribute fully.

We need to encourage people to move from awareness to action, but going further requires two additional steps.  Once an entry level positive activity is established we also need to encourage everyone to think “who else” (can I encourage others to do the same) and “what else” (can I find another area for improvement).

Again, this can be seen as the basics of quality improvement and employee engagement from a business management perspective, but equally it can be applied to our sustainability activities at home and at work.  I’ve tried to illustrate this with the graphic below.

As powerful advocates for change like Sir David Attenborough (www.davidattenboroughfilm.com) voice their concerns, it is vital that the awareness this creates is turned into positive outcomes rather than pessimism and inactivity.


Whatever our circumstances and role each individual will be presented with a series of options and choices.  For some this will be large-scale and strategic, for others a matter of individual actions.  What is needed is for sustainability to become a key factor in all those decisions, alongside more conventional ones like best value and affordability.

Ultimately change is driven by an overwhelming number of individuals making the right decisions, both at home and at work.  Recent UN reports highlight the potential for governments to create a more positive outlook for our planet in a post Covid-19 world (https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/recovering-better/six-climate-positive-actions) – but we all as individuals need to accept, embrace and celebrate the personal authority and responsibility required for a more sustainable future.

About the Author: Ewen Anderson BSc, MMS (Dip), CIO @ Px3

Ewen is CIO of Px3, a company on a self-assigned mission to help organisations balance people, planet and productivity by promoting sustainable IT strategies.  Px3 has set itself the goal of removing the CO2 emissions equivalent of 100,000 cars from our atmosphere by 2050. With a background in psychology, management services, consultancy and enterprise IT, Ewen is a passionate believer that the right technology used in the right way can significantly reduce environmental impacts, engage users and improve productivity.

Ewen (LinkedIn Profile) can be contacted at ewen@px3.org.uk

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