Is it time for organisations to invest as much in sustainability leaders as profitable leaders?

Of the many lessons the global pandemic has taught us, one of the most pressing is that in order to survive as a species we need to protect the earth we inhabit. As the United Kingdom finally heeds national treasure Sir David Attenborough’s warnings, Scotland is investing £2bn to become a net zero emissions economy. But as we transition into a cleaner, greener future on paper, are our leaders equipped with the skills needed to build a truly sustainable future? After years of chasing the bottom line, can they flip a switch to ensure renewables, recycling and zero emissions are now the target? After all, it took a 17-year-old to point out where we were going wrong.

Traditional leadership development for the commercial world has often been disconnected from real work, focused on improving bottom-line business results and restricted to the few who are in or close to the C-suite. Honing a killer instinct that will make a profit. Perpetuating top-down leadership that excludes the majority. According to a recent article in Forbes, leadership training is $366 billion global industry. Has this investment laid the foundation for current, emerging and aspiring leaders who can prioritise future generations’ needs over profits today?

I have a background in conservation and in my time leading a conservation organisation in East Africa I realised that conservation cannot exist as a silo. Only with collaboration with every stakeholder can meaningful change be actualised. And this is where sustainability as an end goal differs so much from profit. True sustainability can only be achieved with the buy-in and co-operation of all. Trump’s withdrawal of the Paris Agreement is an example of this at an international political level.

So what skills will our future leaders need? The buzz word in leadership development circles will undoubtedly be ‘’collaboration’’. To truly achieve sustainability, organisations and governments are going to have to work along the value chain to ensure they are walking the walk every step of the way. It is no good ordering 1 million glass straws if they each come wrapped individually in single use plastic. What does leadership for a sustainable future look like? Who and what do organisations need to be investing in now, to create this sustainable future? What needs to change?

There is no better time for organisations to invest as much in building and developing sustainability leaders, as they have done for decades in creating profitable leaders with commercial success as their priority. But perhaps it is these commercial minded, profit focused leaders who truly hold the key to creating a sustainable future. Profitability and sustainability absolutely must go hand in hand; there is an age-old adage ‘’if it pays, it stays’’ so perhaps those already at the top of their game can show the next generation how to make it pay, as long as we all work together.


By Lucy Russell, an Executive Coach at The Lucidity Coach, specialising in developing purpose-driven leaders

The Scotsman’s free webinar Leadership for sustainable future is on Wednesday 25th November in association with international law firm CMS. Register here

 Our panelists are Zoë Arden (Fellow of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership),  Liz Lowe (Head Of Sustainability, Great Britain, The Coca-Cola Company), Andrew Cave (Head of Governance & Sustainability at Baillie Gifford), Allan Wernham (Managing Director, CMS Scotland) and James Withers (Chief Executive, Scotland Food and Drink).