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ATD Blog

What Is Sustainability Leadership?

Monday, June 14, 2021

Sustainability is defined in a number of ways. When focused on the ecosystem, the most commonly used definition was written in 1987 by the United Nation’s Brundtland Commission, “Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  This definition of sustainability denotes that although current populations may use what they need regarding the earth’s capital, this must be done is a manner which will leave ample resources for others, with minimal waste. 

Who is responsible then for sustainable leadership? With the U.N. definition in an organizational context, the onus is both on every person to modify their behavior as well as organizations to prevent over-consumption and reduce waste. And this reduction of waste needs to start with decisions from the board directors and the human resources department. Studies show socially and environmentally responsible business practices help to reduce operational expenses and improve stakeholder relations, as well as increase profitability and create a competitive advantage.

Sustainability encompasses three key interlocking aspects: environmental, social and economic. According to John Elkington’s triple bottom line, the People, the Planet and Profits are inter-reliant: “society depends on the economy and the economy depends on the global ecosystem, whose health represents the ultimate bottom line.” 

Developing sustainable leadership means to embrace sustainable practices and the triple bottom line concept. Our sustainable leadership definition is: mindful actions and behaviors embracing a global world-view to recognize the connection between the planet and humanity; thereby, through personal and organizational choices, effects positive environmental and social change.


There are a variety of sustainable leadership examples and principles.

  • Understand the interconnections of systems. It is vital to recognize how each group of related factors (people, objects, processes, etc…) are connected and impact each other.
  • Think globally and toward the future.  Consider what current and future impacts you are making with each decision on other countries, society, oceans, animals, communities, waste, resources, etc…
  • Protect nature and people. Distinguish how actions taken affect people and the environment. Try to make decisions that will reduce the negative impacts on second and third levels of people, processes, the environment, and economies.
  • Transform business as usual. Do something different within your span of control. Change a habit which reduces waste such as reading via an e-book or printing double sided.
  • Lead by example. Be responsible for yourself, your job, your actions, and your organization. Hold the organization accountable to lead by example in its actions. Hold yourself accountable to reduce waste and increase efficiency and look for continuous improvements. Others will follow.

For more information on Leadership, visit our Career and Leadership Development Topic page or sign up for the newsletter.

This blog was originally published in June 2012 and has since been updated.

About the Author

Cynthia Way currently works as the Chief Learning Officer for NOAA’s  Oceanic and Atmosphereic Research Line Office.  She previously served as the Lead Curriculum Designer at the Department of Defense.  Prior to working in the Government,  Cynthia served in the U.S. Navy and then worked in the animal health industry in a myraid of capacites ranging from veterinary technician to  Organizational Development Consultant. Cynthia has also served in multiple capacities for various professional development Boards of Directors including Vice-President of Education for ATD Nebraska Board and Nebraska Alliance for Conservation and Environmental Education.  Cynthia is a Certified Professional in Human Resources (PHR), has a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership, and is working on her Doctoral dissertation at The George Washington University for a degree in Human and Organizational Learning with a focus on eco-consciousness through aesthetics.  She has both published and spoke at numerous academic and practitioner conferences to include European Society for the Education of Adults, ASTD International Conferences and Expo, and American Association for Adult and Continuing Education.  

1 Comment
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Great message. I think this can be applied to any business to help leaders and professionals be more mindful of their actions and how they impact one another.
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