Green Leadership -- Learning It and Doing It

The second of two parts

My previous post described what a green business leadership mindset consists of. I argued personal buy-in among leaders is essential to establish, communicate and enact sustainable and socially responsible practices. Here, I describe how leaders can learn to build that mindset, and how that underlies successful and innovative practices.

I see two linked pathways to developing and applying green leadership: First, acquiring and learning relevant facts and evidence-based understanding about emerging global and workforce realities. These require new actions for long-term survival and success. The second is leadership self-development, through self-awareness awareness and other sources of learning. Both must become part of the leader's "DNA" in order for sustainable practices to be successful.

Two Pathways To A Green Leadership Mentality

Learning Facts and Information

This includes acquiring information: Documented research findings; related, science-derived data; and evidence-based understanding and interpretation of current environmental and workforce realities. For example:

Climate Change -- its implications, and the impact of related global upheaval.

A prime source is a recent, well-documented essay by Bill McKibben, who presents both a sobering description of existing facts regarding climate change and the role of fossil fuel dependence that are already highly damaging. He suggests what kind of shifts might possibly mitigate the damage already underway. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has explained that sustainability doesn't mean "green"or "no growth," but rather,

...behaving responsibly in the market and with Mother Nature so we can have growth that lasts. What 'freedom' was for our parents' generation, 'sustainability' has to be for ours. If we do not bring sustainable values to our banking systems and ecosystems, we are going to end up more 'unfree' than if the communists had won the cold war -- because without sustainable practices, repeated crises in the market and Mother Nature will impose more limitations on our way life than anything the Soviets ever could have.

Similarly, economist Paul Krugman has pointed out the economic and social damage from climate change deniers, who repeatedly block action to address it. He writes, ..."large-scale damage from climate change is no longer a disaster waiting to happen. It's happening now."

A Changing Workforce

Learning and integrating knowledge of realities of today's workforce. This includes shifting attitudes, values, and behavior regarding how people view their careers and management, shifts I've described as the emerging "4.0" career. Prominent among the new features is a younger generation, "generation flux," that's both highly competitive and collaborative, and comfortable with rapid change and unpredictability. It's also highly diverse across all demographic dimensions and impatient with old-style, position-based authority vs. authority derived from actual contribution and creative output. Leadership that understands and embraces these shifts reflects what management strategist Umair Haque describes as a "builder" rather than an old-style "leader."

A Healthy Work Environment

These shifts are also visible in the expectation of a healthy psychological and physical environment. A "green" building is not enough; a "green" management culture is also necessary, because a psychologically healthy management culture is essential for long-term success and retention of a creative, energized workforce. There are visible consequences from irrational, narcissistic and destructive bosses. Such management stifles innovation and productivity. It doesn't attract or retain a creative, energized workforce.

Moreover, research shows that an unhealthy, workaholic, high stress culture not only undermines productivity, but also diminishes creativity. Short bursts of intense work can be highly creative, but research shows that it undermines creativity and productivity when it's the norm. For example, in such environments, people were 45 percent less likely to come up with a new idea or solve a complex problem. Moreover, a "pressure hangover" of lower creativity persisted for at least two days. Other research found that productivity actually rises when people can disconnect when away from work and not on call, constantly.

One illustration of leadership response to many of these new realities was described by management consultant Dov Seidman in his recent New York Times article about his own company, LRN. It's experimenting with open, "self-managing" culture, which attempts to let the mission govern the company.

Leadership Exercises And Practices For Self-Development

The other pathway to learning and applying green leadership consists of exercises that help leaders learn about themselves and grow. They help build and teach the emotional attitudes and broad mental perspectives essential for creating and implementing successful sustainability initiatives. A few that I use and recommend include:

The Values Gap Exercise

List your core personal values, and then assess the gap between each of them and how they play out in your daily behavior. Then, describe what it would take for you to reduce the gaps in your actual conduct.

Building Inner Life Awareness

This focuses your attention on the true life "balance" -- not between your "work" and "life" -- both are on the same side of the coin, your external life -- but rather, between all of your outer engagements and things you identify with and your inner life, including your true motives, deepest values and level of empathy towards others who occupy the global community -- and whom your business product or service directly impacts. These links to several practices of mind-body-spirit are helpful, here.

Readings About Evidence-Based Practices And Perspectives

These are helpful for building capacity for honest self-awareness, seeing the link between outer success and your inner life, and other ways to support your self-development. For example, Chade-Meng Tan's Search Inside Yourself, based on a popular course he teaches fellow Google employees; or Richard Branson's recent book about joining financial success with solving social problems.

The Foundation For Sustainability Success

These two pathways -- evidence-based knowledge and self-development -- are the core "curriculum" for learning a green mindset. It underlies successfully creating, communicating and applying successful sustainable programs. A recent, jointly conducted survey of sustainability leaders that looked at the sources of successful strategies concluded that the key elements were interpersonal skills: the ability to quantify the value of an initiative and subject matter expertise. In my view, the personal element is the foundation for the other two. It's much more extensive than interpersonal skill, as I've explained.

The green leadership mindset that emerges from these two pathways reflects both the head and heart; the whole person of the leader. Such leaders aren't just looking for ways to hang on to existing practices. Rather, as CSR writer John Friedman has pointed out, they're oriented to looking for ways to "...invest in new programs and models that reduce the use of energy and natural resources." They are experimenting with technologies to deal with carbon output. Their companies tend to be more like those described in a recent report: That "disruptive" firms are likely to be more successful in sustainable efforts. An integrated green mentality is also more likely to build, for example, a data-driven sustainability program.

Similarly, the green leadership mentality leads to more success in creating "green teams" within companies. When successful, green teams can have a dramatic benefit on a company's environmental and financial performance. They can realize reduced costs associated with resources and energy consumption, via collaboration across departments. But as environmental consultant Anca Novacovici has pointed out, employee engagement is not seen as a priority for many companies, She cites a frequent comment: "If we tell staff to do this, they will do it."

That, alone, reflects an absence of buy-in from leadership. But when a green mindset is present, collaborative networks can become significant catalysts to effective action, through, for example, EarthShare's forums that bring sustainability professionals together to build strong networks and share best practices. Or the UnConvention, an initiative convening corporate, NGO and political leaders to explore common ground on energy, innovation, and sustainable prosperity.

Such efforts, when successful, both reflect and further stimulate a growing, broader movement towards rethinking the role and purpose of business in society. That is, a shift towards enhancing business success through addressing social needs and challenges. Richard Branson has described this as a new approach to business, where "taking care of people and the planet are at the very core of all businesses everywhere in the world." He adds that our current world of transparency and social media demands that "business reinvents itself and becomes a force for good in the world. Branson argues that it's not really a case of social good over capitalism; "'s about social and environmental good becoming core driving forces of capitalism."

With a green leadership mindset, leaders become equipped to create and act upon sustainable practices. And those, in turn, are likely to generate larger-scale actions: support for public policies that will ensure long-term success, wellbeing, and security for all segments of society. All members of an interdependent world. And all residing on the same planet.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at To learn more about him, click here.