Sustainable Leadership Practices; A New Model of Excellence for all Leaders

The criteria that defines quality leadership performance varies depending on the industry, sector, culture, and author of the latest management book. Our belief is that there are core professional leadership practices that are universal and would seriously improve the quality of our lives and are better described as Sustainable Leadership Practices™.

The Sustainable Leader can be defined as someone who is committed to protecting and sustaining the societal resources we all depend on. The leader is skilled in decision making that serve both the immediate and long term needs of the community or organization. In addition, the leader practices systems thinking and knows when to intervene in existing systems to anticipate and prevent crisis and assure sustainability.

The leader’s capacity to intervene and avoid crisis or loss is critical to lowering stress and avoiding enormous costs to the society as a whole. Public Sector examples of where the potential crisis was understood well in advance but not avoided surround us on a daily basis; the Flint, Michigan water crisis, the impact of hurricane Katrina on the poorly designed levees and floodwalls around New Orleans, the 2008 financial crisis, and many others. The level of fear, anxiety and stress these tragedies place on citizens as well as the public leaders and first responders is incomprehensible and goes well beyond the financial numbers that are often used as the primary measure of the crisis.

Citizens depend on their public leaders to practice this foresight and see the changes needed in a system often well before they are obvious to the public at large. These are skills that can be learned and mastered to help communities and organizations avoid the classic, tragedy of the commons. This is a situation where individuals acting independently in self-interest behave contrary to the common good and deplete the shared resource. To a great extent the purpose of any governance system is to protect and sustain the societal commons for the common good.

Dr. Daniel Kim, an organizational consultant, author and teacher in his article “Foresight as the Central Ethic of Leadership”, defines foresight as “being able to perceive the significance and nature of events before they have occurred.” One critical distinction Kim makes is between forecasting and foresight. Forecasting is largely based on looking at the performance of the past and extrapolating that into the future. What is required is for leaders to understand and appreciate the existing systemic structures that are driving the outcomes they are getting. This level of skill and performance is unfortunately uncommon in most leaders and is rarely a performance expectation in the United States especially for public sector leaders.

“The failure (or refusal) to foresee may be viewed as an ethical failure; because a serious ethical compromise today (when the usual judgment on ethical inadequacy is made) is sometimes the result of a failure to make the effort at an earlier date to foresee today’s events and take the right actions when there was freedom for initiative to act.”

The human cost of reactive leadership as opposed to sustainable leadership practices™ has never been estimated but other democratic societies have made it part of how they hire, elect and measure the performance of the public leaders. The US needs to take their lead and begin to develop these practices in American public leaders and reward them for avoiding crises and the stress that comes with them. We are behind the curve on the shift from reactive to sustainable leadership practices. The cost of the current reactive leadership approach is non-sustainable.

Georgie Bishop, President

The Public Sector Consortium

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