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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


September 2015 – As another academic year commences, Dr Louise Drake, Deputy Course Director for the Master’s in Sustainability Leadership, reflects on the challenges and rewards of learning to be a sustainability leader.

Leadership for sustainability: Where is the hope?

Dr Louise Drake, Deputy Course Director for the Master’s in Sustainability Leadership

17 September 2015

"In the face of the most pressing global challenges for business and society, how can I be a person of hope and opportunity?"

That was the question posed by Gail Klintworth, Group Customer Director for Old Mutual Group, who joined us as a guest speaker for a candid discussion on leadership, as part of the Master’s in Sustainability Leadership.

For me, this tension lies at the heart of the challenge that leadership for sustainability presents. How does someone truly grasp the urgency and scale of change required, yet remain a voice of hope without tending towards despair, frustration or doom? 

It is not the only tension that exists. Individuals and organisations have to balance a sense of agency, whilst also having the humility to recognise that they need others to achieve real change. Collectively, we have to critically question our economic system and its ability to deliver good outcomes for society and the environment, whilst simultaneously remaining relevant and appealing as we engage the big players who have the potential for considerable impact. 

As I am sure is the case for many, these tensions are not simply an occasion for idle reflection. 

In delivering a Master’s programme that exists to 'challenge, inform and support leaders to deliver change towards sustainability', my role requires that we navigate these tensions.

Our goal is to provide a learning experience that is both grounded in reality and yet inspiring; that encourages both critical thinking and questioning alongside practical action and response; that empowers people with a sense of their own agency, whilst preparing them for the gritty reality of the resistance to change that that they will inevitably encounter.   

Each year the Master’s in Sustainability Leadership takes on 35–40 students from across the world. There are usually more than 20 countries represented, across a variety of sectors. They are mid-career business leaders, and the part-time nature of the programme allows them to study alongside their day jobs, providing a rich soil for applying their learning.

When you look at the participants' desired learning outcomes, unsurprisingly they want to improve their knowledge of both sustainability issues and potential solutions. They want to be able to influence decision-making and strategy within their organisation. They want to have the confidence to make the business case for change and bring others with them. They want to become more effective leaders.

Yet leadership is notoriously difficult to teach. Indeed, at the beginning of the programme we explicitly state that we do not teach leadership; rather we support students to learn leadership. 

If you search online for books on 'leadership', you get almost 150,000 hits. There is no shortage of content on leadership theory (although less so when it comes to leadership in a sustainability context). However, our aim is to equip participants with, not only the theoretical content but – if it’s not too grandiose an ambition – a new way of seeing; a shift in mind-set that genuinely engages with the need for real systems change. 

Yes, this involves the imparting of knowledge around global trends and pressures as a call to action. Yes, this involves an exploration of different levers for change – from policy intervention, to technological innovation and radical new business models. But it’s also about providing inspiration and motivation – from fireside chats with those working to combat corruption and human rights abuses, to candid ‘masterclasses’ from those at the front line seeking to transform their company from the inside out.

We need to provide a safe space for people to develop the leadership practices that will enable them to be more effective – how they make the most of critical decision moments, how they share a compelling story that inspires others, how they remain resilient in the face of resistance. It’s about helping them identify an opportunity for personal leadership, and then supporting them to experiment, fail, pick themselves up, learn and grow over the course of the programme. And it’s about bringing together a peer group that inspires, challenges, supports and motivates along the way.

As I write this post, we’ve just finished the first of four residential weeks in Cambridge for our new cohort of Master’s students. As we walked out of the main teaching room, one of the students told me how the experience had far exceeded his expectations. He was particularly struck by the other participants on the programme. They were credible business people, professionally savvy, and from a hugely diverse background. More than that however, he was profoundly struck by what he saw as a 'deep respect' for each other and a shared passion for making a difference.

And so I return to where we started, to the theme of hope and opportunity.  When you work in the 'sustainability space' it is easy to become overwhelmed with the task at hand. But it is a privilege to work with those who are distinctive in their courage, commitment and cause, and I look forward to seeing the fruits of their labours over the coming years.

Learn more about our Master of Studies in Sustainability Leadership.

About the Author

Dr Louise DrakeDr Louise Drake is Deputy Course Director for the Master’s in Sustainability Leadership and Course Director for the Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business, both of which lie at the heart of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s mission to inspire and develop the business leaders of the future.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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