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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

The Future of Boards

Why Boards Must Lead

As stewards of the future, boards need to ask the right questions of their executives to ensure that organization makes a positive contribution to fixing a broken world. It is inevitable that boards need to evolve to this approach as only through becoming purposeful in this way that businesses will be able to play a truly sustainable role in society; securing their license to operate, gaining the ability to navigate a complex future and becoming a core pillar of a society and economy with a better future. This means that boards must be more ambitious and smart, and be willing to recognise that businesses are part of the problem, rather than something to be protected against external threats. In protecting the things that truly matter – the businesses’ ability to create social and economic value, its duty of care to its employees and customers, the ongoing history and reputation of an institution itself – boards will need to lead a purposeful transition away from an unsustainable status quo. Boards will need help to reset and align their strategic sights and modus operandi – and worldview and underlying values – and many will have, as a first step, need to recognize that they will need help to achieve this re-wiring of their board governance capability. What does this mean in practice? It means that boards must have the right information at their disposal so that they can have what we call strategic foresight – an ability to understand the complex context in which business must operate, the tough systemic changes that characterize the current era of global change – social, economic and political as well as environmental – and which will in turn enable directors to ask the right questions of their executives, and thereby provide the leadership needed.

As CISL Fellow Professor Richard Calland, who leads our work on boards, says: “It is time for boards to challenge the sacred cows of business-as-usual and refashion themselves in response to the new reality. They must step up to meet the challenge of the age and ask the difficult questions. This is the gauntlet we throw down to boards - to reset their mission and rewire their approach to leadership, so as to fundamentally rethink the role of business in society and the economy. “

Read Richards’s article in the Conversation on why directors need to rewire corporate missions and bring new faces to the table here.

Read Richard Calland’s blog series exploring the importance of board leadership and what is required of future boards here.


What we do

Our experience working with leaders over 30 years shows that with the right leadership, learning culture and interventions we can enable boards to lead with purpose, driving long term value creation for the societies and economies in which they operate, and engaging strategically to address systemic barriers to aligning purpose and profit . Our global leadership programmes are designed to help boards understand the challenges to business, governance, and leadership as usual and to build insight and alignment to lead the necessary transformations. Our thought leadership and research focus not only on what boards and good governance will need to look like in future, but on identifying that it will take to achieve change at individual, organisational and systemic levels so that businesses of the future are led in ways that profitably deliver benefits to people and protect our nature and climate. 


CISL Board Education Programmes

CISL board programme to help boards make better decisions for
long term performance.

Future of Boards research project

CISL Practitioner research project, funded by DLA piper, offering practical evidence-based insights and recommendations to support boards and the business they lead.


Board Leadership blog series

CISL blog series exploring the importance of board leadership and what is required of future boards.

Unleashing the Sustainable Business

CISL report series which examines an alternative, purpose-driven approach to business and reviews the governance needed to enable business to align with sustainability.


Transformational leadership hub

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Leadership for a sustainable future

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Customised Board Programmes

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Non-Executive Director Programme

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Centre for Business Transformation

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Advisory Services

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CISL Conversations

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CISL knowledge hubs

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