The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how fragile our global systems are and has demonstrated that our world is probably not on the right track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

Our priority now is to work together to rebuild our societies and economies. The crisis is not over, and businesses cannot fully return “back to business as usual”. But do we really want to go back to a world that is far from equal, empathetic or sustainable? A world of poverty, societal inequality, and climate change challenges? More than ever, we experience the urgent need for strong leadership, strong institutions, policy transformation into actions, international cooperation, and multi-stakeholder dialogue. “Recover Better, Recover Stronger, Recover Together” is a message we all need to embrace. This message, which recently marked the 20th anniversary of the UN Global Compact, reminds us that a new level of ambition, a new type of business leaders, and a regenerative strategy is the only way to achieve the 17 SDGs and to ensure that no one is left behind.

Leadership for the Decade of Action

During the Leaders Summit of the 20th Anniversary of the UN Global Compact held on June 15-16, this year, the UN Global Compact, in cooperation with Russell Reynolds Associates, released a study on the characteristics of sustainable business leaders titled “Leadership for the Decade of Action.”

The report’s focus has been on business leaders, specifically board members, and the C-suite, as they have the power to make sustainability the center of their business. They are ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the organization.

The report showed the flaws in corporate systems that lie between rhetoric and reality. As 92% of leaders believe in the importance of sustainability to their business’s success, however only 48% incorporate sustainability in their business. According to a recent report, this may be due to the failure of organizations to establish requirements and terms for recruiting new leaders. Sustainability is not built into the range of expectations from new leaders. The report showed that sustainability experience was an actual requirement for only 4% of executive and non-executive role specifications.

Characteristics of Sustainable Business Leaders

Fifty-five business leaders who have incorporated sustainability into their business have been interviewed to discuss how organizations can transform business leaders and make today’s “leaders” the “sustainable leaders” of tomorrow. The report revealed the unique characteristics of these leaders who integrate sustainability across strategy, operations, and stakeholder engagement. The selection of the 55 leaders was diverse and included a global group from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, North America, and Latin America. It also included both genders, where 34% of the leaders were female.

Sustainable leaders demonstrate four critical leadership attributes that are driven by their sustainable mindset:

  • Multilevel Systems Thinking
  • Stakeholder Inclusion
  • Disruptive Innovation
  • Long-Term Activation

When looking at their journey towards sustainability, the report showed that sustainable leaders have career experience and international experience that varied between two or more continents, enabling them to understand diverse cultures and how business works. In addition, 64% of leaders possess great professional experience in two or more jobs, giving them a broader view of their business and industry and honing their leadership skills.

The sustainability leaders studied have demonstrated a sustainable mindset, as they believe that businesses are not separate from the environment and society in which they operate. Leaders with a sustainable mindset integrate all of their organizations’ operations with the economic, social, and environmental systems to drive change. These leaders call for sustainable and commercial results through effective risk management and long-term growth opportunities. Sustainable leaders can respond effectively and engage with stakeholders. This is to obtain a wide range of perspectives to advance decision-making, create value, reduce risk, and considering all stakeholders.

Leaders of sustainability have the courage to challenge the traditional business model and status quo. They are fully aware that the shift required to make real progress towards the SDGs will not occur through incremental improvements to traditional approaches. Instead, they need radical change, innovation and disruption of the current business model.

Sustainability leaders have a long-term approach. They set bold goals and strictly push their actions and investments in their pursuit of these goals. The long-term focus is critical to business survival and success, driving sustainability-related innovation, developing their human capital and their customer base, expanding into new markets, creating operational efficiencies, and effectively managing social and environmental risks.

Sustainable Leaders of Tomorrow

There is an urgent need for a new type of business leadership, which is looking beyond profits in the short term but invests in long-term sustainability and resilience as a top priority. Sustainability is essential for long-term success but requires a certain mindset and leadership qualities. There is ample opportunity for boards and C-Suite leaders to place sustainability at the center of the organization’s business and strategy, be ambitious and brave in leading a new vision for business and nourish sustainable leaders within their organizations. Sustainable leadership can be fostered and developed. Now is the time for all organizations to cultivate leadership at all levels, to disrupt established concepts, and establish successful business models for challenges not here yet and make sustainability…sustainable.

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

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