HomeNewsDirector’s Almanac: Sustainability institute leaders have guidance for the next generation

Director’s Almanac: Sustainability institute leaders have guidance for the next generation

This month I’d like to share insights from a paper that colleagues and I just published in the journal Nature Sustainability. The authors are a who’s-who of academic leaders in sustainability organizations in Australia, India, South Africa, Brazil, Germany, and the United States (including Arizona State, Columbia University and the University of Michigan). Some of us have known each other for years; others were new connections. All of us were gathered by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, as part of a working group on fostering interdisciplinarity.

Each of us perceives a crucial need for translational and interdisciplinary centers of excellence in sustainability within universities, and we recognize that leaders of these organizations have much to learn from one another — because we are all making it up as we go along.

That’s right: None of us were trained to lead sustainability institutes. We grew into these roles thanks to past research success, an aptitude for collaboration and engagement, and an affinity for crossing disciplinary boundaries. Some of us have a passion for transformative innovation and grand ideas. Many of us have a passion for putting ideas into practice to make the world a better place. 

In writing this paper, we agreed that there are some common features and principles to sustainability leadership, and we think that sharing those lessons has value for future leaders. Our paper makes seven points, or suggestions, about the talent and care that sustainability leadership needs. Here are the “CliffsNotes“…

  1. Envision beyond the status quo.

Sustainability science crosses over the traditional disciplines of academia, and this feature helps sustainability institutes break new ground. But it also requires a particular skill in the sustainability institute leader—the ability to talk about and work toward a future that’s different than the past. Leaders have to continually think about, and adapt to, changing needs of the people they work with, and they have to keep an eye on what a sustainable future could look like. My personal favorite is a future when faculty, staff and students explain—when asked—what they are working toward rather than what they are working on.

  1. Nurture partnerships and interactions effectively.

No vision of the future is achievable without a sophisticated web of interactions outside of the university where good ideas come from and solutions can be put into practice. This web of interactions will require different kinds of engagement for different occasions (from informing to empowering) and should always be bi-directional. We felt that one of the most valuable things a sustainability institute — and sustainability leader — can provide its community of participants is a network of well-cultivated partnerships that are primed and ready-to-go. Recognizing this need is a key feature of leadership.

  1. Harmonize values and empirical rigor.

Many sustainability institutes around the world — at least in our author group — arose from the biophysical sciences, but sustainability outcomes must be informed by social-cultural values that are understood by the humanities, arts and spirituality. Maintaining a balance of the normative and the empirical — with vibrant interplay between them — is an exciting feature of a good sustainability organization. There is much a sustainability leader can do to reach out to the humanities and the arts, but an appreciation and an open mind to these disciplines is an important place to start.

  1. Promote respect for multiple ways of knowing.

We felt that one of the greatest challenges of being a sustainability leader was overcoming disciplinary bias and becoming open to alternative ways of seeing the world. Some of us have seen outright hostility to other ways of knowing and a lack of respect for disciplines with different epistemological discourse or practice-based knowledge. Great sustainability leaders make it possible for minds to open to a wider world-view.

  1. Foster equity, shared leadership and consensus.

In many — if not all — cases, sustainability outcomes mean revising power structures, and this can lead to greater demand for transparency and shared leadership within sustainability organizations and in interactions with the public and key stakeholders. Practicalities and administrative obligations necessarily push back against transparency, and sustainability leaders must develop sophisticated political judgement toward shared governance while consistently pushing for greater equity and access when everyone can’t have a direct seat at the table. 

  1. Create nimbleness and flexibility.

One of the biggest truths that our author group agreed upon was the relatively slow pace of consultative research and equitable implementation in comparison to the typical research timeline. Being consultative and considering the consequences of our actions means spending time with the people affected by environmental problems, listening to their ideas and their needs. This can certainly slow down the research process. At the same time, sustainability institute leaders need to produce timely responses to stakeholder and public needs, and they must find a way to balance timeliness against the conduct of high-quality research. Most importantly, they have to be able to support the work of engaged scholars, many of whom are still accountable to traditional metrics of academia, and advocate for that work in the traditional setting of a university.

  1. Persevere and be resilient in the face of substantial pressures

There are nay-sayers and deniers out there in the world, and some people use misinformation and smear tactics to discredit research and research organizations. This pressure is real for many sustainability scientists and practitioners — and certainly for sustainability leaders. It requires perseverance and resilience to keep going. Fortunately, sustainability folks can share this journey together, and communities of practice can be helpful in succeeding at this aspect of sustainability leadership. I know I value my colleagues and co-authors tremendously in this way. 

Taking these seven points into consideration, we concluded that — above all else — leaders of sustainability research organizations must provide an “environment where interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary science flourish.” And we call for new programs to help develop skills in people with the aptitude and promise for this unique kind of academic leadership. 

New ideas and human capital are needed to put sustainability into place (something we embrace at IonE), so society needs universities to bring their A-game. We hope our essay can be part of the pursuit for institutional excellence.

In planetary prosperity,


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