Let me start by saying that reading on sustainability leadership can be somewhat overwhelming! I recently read a very comprehensive paper called “Sustainability leadership: Linking theory and Practice”published by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. The authors propose a sustainability leadership model that includes at least 20 differentcharacteristics for sustainability leaders. They clearly acknowledge that one single individual doesn’t need to demonstrate all of them to be considered as an impactful leader. This is reassuring as diversity among sustainabilityleaders is probably as valuable as it is in any other leadership situation.
Nevertheless, among the mentioned characteristics, one got my attention as it was illustrated by a quote from Jan Muelfeit, former Chairman Europe at Microsoft Corporation: “You can motivate people’s hands or their brains, but you can’t motivate their hearts; it takes real inspiration”. I have led teams for quite a long time now, in very different environments from Europe to Australia and China and I fully recognize the power of inspiration. I also know that I can lose my inspiring style to enter into a kind of fight mode when I face people who behave or state ideas against my values. I received a very concrete feedback on this point during a recent development assessment, that I copied here as it will serve as a basis for the leadership challenge I want to take in the coming months: “While she has a proven track-record of engaging well with others across functions, is still on a journey in terms of moving from ‘convincing’ to ‘influencing’, especially in tense situations – could prioritize her battles somewhat better and continue to develop the internal relationships that will boost her natural impact, thus making the need to convince less important”. Reflecting on this feedback and Muelfeit’s quote, it is pretty clear that convincing is not going to get me far on my sustainability journey. This is especially true with colleagues opposed to the pressing need for businesses to positively impact sustainability issues or who still value more a philanthropic approach rather than the ambitious objective to embed sustainability in our company strategy.
I have some ideas on solutions that I already started to test in real life situations: the first step for me is to be aware when I am switching from inspiring to convincing and to pause to acknowledge it when it happens. This seems easy but I know that I am still tempted to react on the spot when my values and beliefs, especially when based on strong evidence, are challenged. The second step could be to explore opinions that I don’t understand or which annoy me by moving into inquiry mode and showing willingness to understand the agenda of the person in front of me. I read a very insightful book on this topic called “Humble inquiry: the gentle art of asking instead of telling” by Edgar Schein and I recommend it to anyone who wants to explore the power of inquiry in leadership. I am not yet there, but very excited to progress on my journey to switch from convincing to inspiring especially in challenging situations!