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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


18 December 2020 – Lindsay Hooper, CISL’s Executive Director, Education, asks what learnings we can take from this tumultuous year in order to lay the foundations for the future we want.

As we look back on a turbulent year - one which has disrupted lives, overturned assumptions, transformed economies, and even led us to reassess what we really value - what have we learned that might help us to be more resilient in handling the greater system shocks that lie ahead?

Those of us working to foster and inspire solutions to global challenges are actively seeking to catalyse and accelerate transformational change, changes such as the rapid decarbonising of economies and radical solutions to inequality. We have much to learn from how the world responded to the system shock of a pandemic, a shock which - like climate change - was long anticipated but for which many did not adequately prepare. As well as learning about the process of change, we must also adapt to be relevant to transformed societies and economies. We need to understand what is needed now, what new opportunities for change have opened up, and even to consider how we may need to transform ourselves to ensure we can play an effective role in shaping the future we want.

Many valuable insights and ideas have emerged through our engagement with thousands of leaders in our programmes and leadership groups, our international network, and our colleagues and faculty. But when we consider the contours of the year, what are the stand-out developments that will reshape our work and thinking into 2021 and beyond?

A year of asking big questions

A hallmark of our work at CISL has always been our focus on the big picture. We challenge leaders to engage with big questions about the system in which they operate and their role within it, and work with them to develop solutions. What has been truly remarkable this year is the openness and appetite for challenge that we have experienced. The leaders we have worked with have needed no encouragement to step back, ask big questions and challenge the status quo. Indeed, they have often been more challenging of themselves than we might have imagined possible. Against a backdrop of increasingly visible symptoms of climate change, inequality and the destruction of nature, we see widespread acceptance that ‘the system’ isn’t working, and a Covid-accelerated impetus to question the very foundations and assumptions on which we have constructed our societies.

Fundamental debates have raged over key concepts such as ‘fairness’, ‘rights’, ‘respect’ and even the concept of ‘value’ (the latter eloquently and brilliantly unpacked by former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney in the BBC’s Reith Lectures). Big questions have been asked about the values we hold as individuals, organisations and societies.

The businesses and leaders with whom we engage have not been bystanders but active participants in public discourse. They have brought these debates into boardrooms and reflected on what the changing landscape means for the way we make decisions now.  Big questions are being posed – importantly, by business leaders - about the structure and impact of markets and the role, purpose and responsibilities of the companies that operate within them. Businesses and their investors are being challenged to take action; to go beyond talking about sustainability and address what it means to enact the solutions and walk the talk.

The changes resulting from the system shock of Covid-19 have been painful – but we mustn’t allow ourselves to drift back to ‘business as usual’ as we did in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. We must instead prepare for managed transitions to different ways of living and working to address and adapt to the consequences of climate change, the destruction of nature, and the destabilisation of our societies.

We must therefore actively encourage and enable more explicit questioning of the ways we live, the future of consumption, wealth and work; and hope that, in 2021, society and its leaders will continue to actively challenge our systems and rethink our collective future for the better.

A year in which people became a priority

Covid-19, global trade, economic challenges, politics and climate change may have dominated the headlines but the themes that leaders have really wanted to talk about have all related to people, community and society. This year, the conversation shifted from ‘resources’ and ‘talent’ to ‘people’. It became acceptable – even expected – that leaders connected and communicated at a human level, to talk about values, aspirations and vulnerabilities. And the qualities that we have valued in leaders – the qualities that our clients are increasingly seeking to develop – are human qualities: compassion, the ability to engage, to inspire and to build trust.

Covid-19 also put a major spotlight on the wellbeing of employees, the need for family-friendly policies and the need to protect jobs and livelihoods, or to reskill workers and create opportunities for young people. But the leaders we have been working with have been challenging themselves to go well beyond simply mitigating the negative impacts of Covid-19. Banking clients want to talk about strategic solutions to inequality. Engineering and building clients want to build communities, to design for human health and wellbeing. Retailers want to talk about labour conditions in their supply chains and healthy communities in their markets. And many of clients who are focusing on climate change are now recognising the need to talk about justice and fairness, skills and jobs. These conversations are not new, but 2020 saw added impetus, energy and leadership.

Supporting them to go further, faster – and to use their institutional reach and influence to support the necessary structural changes across economies – will be an important priority for us in 2021.

A year in which we checked our privilege

This year many of us experienced a number of stark reminders of our privilege. Many reading this were able to pivot to home working, had access to healthcare, a financial nest-egg to cushion the blow of redundancy, and regular access to green spaces. We are acutely aware that this is not the situation for many in society.  And we know that we have a responsibility and an obligation to use our privileged positions to make the system work for all.

BLM was another powerful wake-up call. Another reminder that we have not done enough. By not doing enough, we are potentially a part of the problem. One that we must and will work to address.

If we are to have real world relevance and impact, we must recognise that the ‘truths’ that we consider to be self-evident, the positions that we consider to be ‘rational’ are a construct of our own values and world views. We must be crystal clear about our purpose and the ultimate outcomes we seek, yet be willing to understand alternative, lived realities and listen to those to whom the ‘truth’ can look very different. We have a responsibility to challenge complacency, orthodoxies and inadequate responses, not only in others but also in ourselves.  And we must recognise that being evidence-based is necessary but not sufficient. As we step into unknown territory, we must bring multiple perspectives to bear on varied and incomplete data and be proactive in seeking out and engaging with diversity, divergence and dissent.

If we are serious about real world change, 2021 must be a year in which we pursue solutions which speak to human needs and aspirations right across the political and social spectrum. We must find a way to shape futures that we all want.


Read the business briefing Accelerating the transition to a sustainable economy in a post-Covid world: what has changed, what have we learned, and what can business do now?


Find out how CISL builds the leadership capacity and skills to generate action. 


About the author

Lindsay Hooper

Lindsay Hooper is Executive Director, University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

Lindsay leads the Institute’s Education team which support major organisations and individual leaders internationally to build the capability to create the future we want, aligning commercial performance with the delivery of positive outcomes for society. This spans strategic engagements with major companies to integrate sustainability into business strategy and operations, customised education programmes to build leadership capability, international executive and practitioner seminars, and growing portfolios of graduate and online programmes to challenge, inform and support individuals to lead change.


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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.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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