Sustainability Leadership

Sustainability Leadership:

Linking Theory and Practice

Paper by Wayne Visser & Polly Courtice


The paper aims to create a clearer understanding of the nature of sustainability leadership and how it can contribute to transformational change. It does this by locating sustainability within the leadership literature, defining the concept of sustainability leadership, and presenting a model of sustainability leadership in practice. The model was tested with a sample of senior business leaders and refined in line with their feedback. The model presents insights on sustainability leadership in three areas: context, individual characteristics, and actions. The model is illustrated using quotes from senior business leaders that are focused on sustainability in their organisations.


This paper is based on research conducted by the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (CPSL), which works with business, government and civil society to build the capacity of leaders, both to meet the needs of their stakeholders and to address critical global challenges. The paper is an attempt to create a clearer understanding of the nature of sustainability leadership and how it can contribute to transformational change.

The Model of Sustainability Leadership that we have developed was corroborated by interviews with the following business leaders, conducted in 2010: Neil Carson, CEO of Johnson Matthey; Ian Cheshire, CEO of Kingfisher; Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric; Philippe Maso, CEO of AXA; Jan Muehlfeit, Chairman of Microsoft Europe; Truett Tate, Group Executive Director: Wholesale, for Lloyds Banking Group; José Lopez, Executive Vice President: Operations and GLOBE of Nestle; and Sandy Ogg, Chief Human Resources Officer for Unilever. The paper and the model are illustrated by extensive quotations from these interviews.

Definitions and Theories of Leadership

De Vries (2001) reminds us that the Anglo-Saxon etymological root of the words lead, leader and leadership is laed, which means path or road. The verb means to travel. Thus a leader is one who shows fellow travellers the way by walking ahead. He also suggests that leadership – which focuses on the effectiveness of strategy – is different to management – which deals with the efficiency of operations.

Ian Cheshire (2010), CEO of Kingfisher, says “leadership is about getting people to go where they wouldn’t have gone on their own”. Rather more flamboyantly, management guru Tom Peters (1989) suggests leadership is about “discovering the passion, persistence and imagination to get results, to be able to find the Wow factor and to be able to think the weird thoughts necessary to learn and thrive in a disruptive age”.

The element of transformational change in Peters’ definition makes it particularly relevant to sustainability. We have a working definition of leadership, as follows:

“A leader is someone who can craft a vision and inspire people to act collectively to make it happen, responding to whatever changes and challenges arise along the way.”

In addition to definitions, there are also various theories on leadership and while it is not our intention to provide an exhaustive review of these, they do set a frame for sustainability leadership. Hence, we can distinguish three main approaches to understanding leadership …

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”download” new_window=”false” link=””]Pdf[/button] Sustainability Leadership (paper)

Related pages

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=””]Page[/button] Corporate Sustainability & Responsibility (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”″]Link[/button] Social Science Research Network (website)

Cite this article

Visser, W. & Courtice, P. (2011) Sustainability Leadership: Linking Theory and Practice, SSRN Working Paper Series, 21 October 2011. Published on SSRN at:

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