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Needed now more than ever: Leadership for Change

Needed now more than ever: Leadership for Change

 Dame Polly Courtice, DBE, LVO, Director, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

29 June 2016

Dame Polly Courtice DBE, LVO, was Founder Director of the University of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (1989–2021). She is now Emeritus Director and Senior Ambassador, CISL.

By sheer coincidence, our global network event – Leadership for Change – that we had been planning in CISL since late last year, coincided with the UK’s vote to leave the EU. Waking that morning to the momentous decision taken by the British people, my first thought was to wonder how on earth we would be able to run the event as scheduled. We had planned a series of discussions, on the first anniversary of the launch of ‘Rewiring the Economy’, to discuss the individual and collective leadership that will be needed  to lay the foundations for a sustainable economy, and to explore the practical actions that we need to take to move from ambition to delivery.

It was clearly going to be impossible to plunge straight into the meat of the planned discussion, so we started the day by inviting the 200 or so leaders who had joined us from business, government, the finance sector and civil society, to tell us what they thought the referendum outcome might mean for their organisations and for their own leadership ambitions in driving sustainable development.

Perhaps the first and strongest reaction to emerge was just how important it would be to work quickly and intentionally to heal the deep divides that had opened up, and to build bridges around the world. This was accompanied by a profound sense of sadness at the division, dissatisfaction, and disenfranchisement that had been laid bare within British society, and the associated lack of trust in leaders, experts and perceived elites.

The meeting had been convened to build on the spirit of shared endeavour between nations that delivered the global agreement on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. This dramatic development raised fears that our common purpose would be undermined and would serve to further divide and fragment the world, putting up more walls rather than building better bridges. 

During the course of the day, strengthened by camaraderie and a common interest in sustainability, we reminded ourselves that whatever the next few years might hold, the science remains unchanged. Global challenges like climate change, resource security and social inequality cannot be tackled by organisations or nations in isolation, and there is still a clear moral and business case to act on climate change and the SDGs. Now, more than ever, we need to find ways of working more closely together at every level in every system, within and between nations if we are to deliver the outcome we so urgently need.

Even more optimistically, there were some who argued that this change, this shock to the system, this period of acute uncertainty, also represents an opportunity for the UK to chart its own course, to demonstrate a new level of resilience and innovation and to take the opportunity to build a new vision for a sustainable future; embracing and engaging the priorities and needs of its citizens – especially the younger generation – whilst also protecting its natural resources and building on its economic strengths to achieve sustainable and green growth.

Whatever views were held, throughout the day our conversations returned time and again both to what we could do as individuals, and to the kind of leadership we need to deliver change. Some of the views that emerged include:

We must not underestimate our role and responsibility as leaders

The decisions made over the next weeks and months concerning Brexit will shape our collective future. We must do all we can to ensure that those decisions are taken in the long-term interests of society and that they contribute to our ability to achieve sustainable communities and economies.

We need to move beyond traditional silos

We must find common cause between left and right, north and south, rich and poor, old and young, leave and remain, UK and EU and beyond, to generate a new vision for a sustainable society and economy.

We need to listen to and engage with the disaffected

Science, data, analysis and technocratic leadership alone will not achieve the progress we need. Engaging with ordinary people, understanding their needs, interests and priorities, and working together to create just solutions will be critical. Leaders must practice the ability to listen and to step into the shoes of others.

We need to reflect on our approaches to change and transition

We must check our biases and our blind spots and consider what we can learn from history and from international experience; championing justice and fairness as we build coherent, long-term plans that also cater for those who stand to lose – as well as those who feel they have nothing left to lose.

We need to communicate the benefits more effectively

As leaders and champions for sustainability, we need to be more effective than ever in communicating the importance, urgency and the benefits of seizing this opportunity to build a sustainable economy. We need to connect at the level of individuals, not just economies, and we need to focus not on scaremongering, but on opportunity, innovation, growth and on the positive social and environmental benefits for individuals, communities and future generations.

This latest system shock offers a real opportunity for leaders to focus on understanding and communicating the benefits of sustainability, both as means of building unity of purpose within society and as a way of reconnecting with the disenfranchised and dispossessed. It is also an important moment to consider what it will take to build trust in those who lead, and those who advise or represent sources of knowledge or expertise, whether in academia or elsewhere.

I am confident that, whatever the long- or short-term implications of this decision, CISL will continue to work with its network of over 8,000 leaders raising the levels of ambition and ability to build a more sustainable economy.


About the author

Polly Courtice

Polly is Director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). She is also Founder Director of The Prince of Wales's Business and Sustainability Programme, and Academic Director of the University’s Master of Studies in Sustainability Leadership

Polly is a member of the University’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy Committee and the Board of Executive and Professional Education. She is a Director of Jupiter Green Investment Trust and a Non-Executive Director of Anglian Water Services Ltd, and is on the environmental/sustainability advisory boards for AstraZeneca, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP, Lloyds Banking Group and Nespresso. In 2016 Polly was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE), and in 2008 a Lieutenant of the Victorian Order (LVO), both announced in the Queen's Birthday Honours list. Polly was awarded the 2015 Stanford Bright Award.

Polly is a graduate of the University of Cape Town and has an MA from the University of Cambridge.

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Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.