Sustainability leadership: How to engage business leaders with sustainability

09 November 2021

Sustainability leadership: How to engage business leaders with sustainability

Share this

Sustainability leadership reflects the important role businesses and those who lead them play in shaping the sustainable future we need. In 1987, the UN defined sustainability as:

meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

Sustainability has been described as spanning three pillars: people, profit, and environment. In reality, humanity’s sustainability crisis manifests in all sorts of ways, including:

  • One in ten people are living in extreme poverty (The World Bank, 2020)
  • One in three women will experience violence at some point in their lifetime (WHO, 2021)
  • 70 million children never receive an education (Guardian, 2010)

There is clearly significant progress that needs to be made – and businesses play a key role in solving these complex environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. Business leaders and senior management must be engaged with sustainability, including having the skills, insight and knowledge required to implement and execute a long-term sustainability plan.


Leadership and sustainability

Creating a more sustainable world is a critical challenge, but also a real opportunity. Although responsibility lies with each and every individual, without bold and effective leadership it will be impossible for humanity to resolve our most serious environmental and social crises.


What is sustainability leadership?

Research conducted by identified seven common characteristics that are most important in distinguishing the leadership approach taken by individuals tackling sustainability issues:

  • Systemic, interdisciplinary understanding
  • Emotional intelligence and a caring attitude
  • Values orientation that shapes culture
  • A strong vision for making a significant difference
  • An inclusive style that prompts trust
  • A willingness to innovate and be radical
  • A long-term perspective on impacts


Ultimately, sustainable leadership means ensuring that responsibilities and authorities for sustainability initiatives are assigned, communicated and understood within the organisation.  

  • The integrity of the management system is maintained when changes are planned and
  • Sustainability tasks are planned, implemented and achieved.

As promising as this sounds, there is often a disconnect with a divergence between profit, people, and environmental priorities.

For example, a 2019 PwC survey of more than 700 business leaders discovered that the majority (56%) thought boards were spending too much time on sustainability. Some of this thinking can undoubtably be traced back to traditional beliefs that do not align with viewing sustainability as a priority. But a large part of the problem is that until recently, boards did not have a mandate to grapple with sustainability; instead, their time was consumed by compliance tasks unrelated to sustainability.

We find ourselves increasingly focusing on how we can move the great-thinking, very mature approaches of the quality team and get them into the boardroom so that the people in the boardroom listen and take note of what’s happening

— John Oakland , Oakland Consulting

So, how can you engage senior management and promote sustainable leadership in your organisation?


A 5-step framework to engaging leadership with sustainability

 Map out your stakeholders

  1. Understand their needs
  2. Implement an integrated management system
  3. Send the right message at the right time
  4. Get leadership’s attention

Leveraging this simple framework enables sustainability leadership to be achievable, and the incentive to succeed is certainly there. Engaging senior leadership with sustainability opens your business up to a world of benefits, including:

  • Employees will understand and be motivated towards the organisation’s ESG goals and objectives
  • Sustainability activities will be evaluated, aligned, and implemented in a unified way
  • Miscommunication between levels of an organisation will be minimised
  • A sharp vision of the organisation’s future is established
  • Challenging but realistic sustainability goals and targets will be set
  • Shared values, fairness and ethical role models are established at all levels of the organisation
  • Trust is established and fear is eliminated
  • Employees are provided with the required resources, training and freedom to act with responsibility and accountability
  • People are inspired, encouraged and their contributions are recognised. 

Ideagen partnered with the Chartered Quality Institute (CQI) to ask 30,000 quality and audit professionals whether they think their business is doing enough to protect the environment, what initiatives their business has taken, and to share their examples, ideas and advice for us to share in this report.

We found that although ownership of sustainability is most likely to sit with top management, 60% of quality professionals say they play a key role in managing sustainability and “changing the mindset of the leaders” was quoted as a major challenge to sustainability initiatives.

Download our full report to learn more about sustainability leadership and how organisations are engaging senior leadership to embed sustainability best practices throughout their business.


Download the report

Our Global Sustainability Report provides fascinating insight into environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues and whether businesses are doing enough when it comes to sustainability.

Download now
Ideagen's Sophie Willink
Written by

Sophie Willink

As Ideagen’s Content Marketing Executive, Sophie produces informative content to provide customers with digestible insights into the world of quality, audit, risk and compliance.

With a background in psychology, Sophie is passionate about understanding human behaviour and the role technology can play in measuring, reporting and improving behaviours to create higher quality business environments.

My Business Need

This will help us identify the best software product for you.

Tell Us More

Please share some further detail so we can refine your product recommendations.