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Jul 28, 2020 11:08 AM EDT

Higher Education Goes Sustainable, Paving the Way for Responsible Leadership


Higher Education Goes Sustainable, Paving the Way for Responsible Leadership

(Photo : Higher Education Goes Sustainable, Paving the Way for Responsible Leadership)

If humanity is to survive the ecological consequences of industrialisation, sustainability must be tackled decisively. Strong, innovative leadership is key. The higher education space has an enormous role to play here, forming effective, knowledgeable leaders capable of bringing about the colossal changes needed in the coming years. Fortunately, universities around the world understand their importance and are developing necessary strategies and policies, paving the way for a sustainable future.

The need for sustainability leadership

It is now obvious that climate change is a clear and profound risk to society. In dealing with it, a measure of the appropriate urgency has been witnessed among young activists, vividly encapsulated in recent years through the totemic figure of Greta Thunberg. Equally, a shift in sentiment within the business and investment spaces has also surfaced.

"The broader zeitgeist now extends to major financial institutions looking to discover their social purpose," observe N. Craig Smith and Leena Lankowski in 'Balancing profit and social welfare: ten ways to do it'. The authors evidence BlackRock, the world's largest investment firm, as one example of a trend in which investors increasingly expect businesses to consider the needs of stakeholders, rather than the all-consuming primacy of shareholder interests.

According to Lankowski, who is a senior lecturer at Finland's Aalto University School of Business, the sustainable actions of a company start with leaders who are engaged on the topic and are aware of the necessary resources and perspectives.

"Sustainability is a competitive advantage socially, environmentally, and economically more now than ever before, and it is an important matter for senior executives and leaders in order to responsibly lead the company into the future while valuing company transparency and reputation," she says.

Tackling sustainability together

Naturally, the position of universities as leaders, change makers, and the schools from which many of the future's business leaders emerge - requires that they set strong and progressive examples themselves.

Isabela del Alcázar believes that to understand the complexity and interdisciplinarity of the concepts presented in the United Nations 2030 agenda we must acknowledge that everything is connected.

"There needs to be a behavioural change in our society, as a university we need to lead with example," she explains.

Isabela del Alcázar is Global Head of sustainability at IE University. This institution recently announced its new sustainability strategy, including the "10 Year Challenge" campaign which will focus on specific annual projects from 2020 to 2030. This year will focus on responsible consumption.

"We aim to place sustainability at the centre of all aspects of the institution. This involves rethinking the curriculum, campus operations, and organisational culture," Isabela del Alcázar says.

The university aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2030. Currently, it provides 1800 hours a year of teaching related to sustainability for its students, with the goal of doubling this by 2030. Additionally, IE University´s students have the opportunity to develop social innovation impact projects as part of their studies. These can be aimed at making a positive impact on a company, community, or society.

For policies and movements to be effective, they need to encourage mobilisation and change in a concerted way. Ambitious, high-level objectives put in place at the top of a university can be a powerful way to underpin more immediate and concrete goals.

The University of Manchester takes its role in ecology seriously. The institution has set its own list of policies that directly bring about strategic objectives on sustainability practices.

These objectives include empowering people to make change and take action; prioritising processes and infrastructure that support positive environmental behaviour and decision-making; and ensuring that people are recognised for their contributions to sustainability objectives.

"[This] is a brilliant reflection of the work of our researchers, teachers, students, professional services and cultural institution staff, enhancing our global reputation as a leader on social responsibility and impact", says Julian Skyrme, who is director of social responsibility at the university.

Dispositional flexibility and true resilience

Alex Budak is faculty at the Haas School of Business, University of California Berkeley. He believes that what leaders need most of all is dispositional flexibility, and he suggests that many who promote change and encourage seeing the opportunity in challenges misunderstand the often-cited term resilience.

He believes that when it comes to approaches for leading positive change, a good place to start is on flexibility, because of how rapidly the world is changing right now. He points to the work of psychologist Steve Zaccaro, highlighting the notion of dispositional flexibility: the capacity to be optimistic and yet grounded in reality.

"Applying dispositional flexibility allows us to survive amidst ambiguity [...] It means taking the necessary precautions, while remembering that there is still lots of good in the world," Budak explains.

Given the enormous changes needed across society, practicing dispositional flexibility could be crucial. The years ahead will be challenging, but our goals must be ambitious - fundamentally, if people believe that substantial changes are possible then they will engage with sustainability targets more fully.

Another necessary mindset for positive changemakers is resilience, Budak adds. He believes this trait is all too often confused with the simple capacity for enduring discomfort and pain, however.

"Resilience is actually an intentional practice which includes endurance, yes, but which also elevates learning, growth, development, and leading with purpose," he says. 

Space for positivity

Resilience is, of course, something that we have all had to demonstrate in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. Isabela del Alcázar of IE University offers an optimistic note, arguing that while this is an extremely challenging time for all of us, the outbreak and confinement periods also present us with valuable growth lessons.

First and foremost, the situation has shown that people are willing to set aside their own particular priorities "to contribute to the collective well-being."

This willingness to change our way of acting for the greater good, demonstrates that society is ready for action on climate change, she suggests.

"The time has come to reorient political, economic and social systems at all levels and to help our fellow citizens to start thinking and behaving in a way that promotes a more sustainable planet," she says.

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