It Ain’t Easy Being Green – Machiavelli and Sustainability Leadership

The lead sustainability role in organizations may be unique among typical jobs.  To do the job well requires knowledge of a wide field of subject matter from energy to waste to chemicals, an understanding of all functions and aspects of the organization, a solid grasp of how to make change happen, and great communication skills.  In short, it’s not easy.

More and more individuals have the knowledge base that is critical to the technical aspects of the role.  Spend enough time getting to know every nook and cranny of an organization and you can learn its functions.  What’s way tougher is to acquire the skills to lead change in the organization.  In most organizations, leadership that cuts across the institution is reserved for the executive team – the CEO, COO, and the heads of finance, HR, etc. – who have had the opportunity to build leadership skills as part of their career development.  Because the lead sustainability role often is not an executive function, those who come to the role have not had a chance to figure out what leaders do and how they can develop those skills.

Compounding the problem is that the roots of sustainability are an outgrowth of EHS (environment, health, and safety) activities, which has meant that there may be an ongoing expectation that the chief motivational strategy is going to be “nagging.”  All too often the EHS legacy in most organizations has been one of gaining and maintaining compliance and a rejection of the potential opportunities to move beyond compliance.  All too much like “just what the doctor ordered.”  And who really wants to take that medicine?

What does sustainability leadership look like?  If you haven’t read Machiavelli’s The Prince or it’s been awhile, take a look.  Just keep in mind that you’re reading it because you’re the counselor not the Prince (Machiavelli wrote the book as a kind of audition for the job he wanted—counselor to Prince Lorenzo de Medici—and return to Florence from exile).  Your organization has a CEO.  On your own, you, as the sustainability lead, don’t have much power; what you have is delegated to you via the executive leadership.  As such you have to recognize and accept that you are essentially a political appointee and your job rests on your ability to realize the executive agenda, provide wise counsel, and make the organization look good by bringing it along the sustainability path.

That doesn’t mean that you actually do the all the work.  It does mean that you have to provide a kind of leadership that gives people a vision for where the organization needs to go.  You may have a substantial role in creating the vision as an expression of the executive agenda and you certainly have the responsibility for communicating the vision and what needs to happen to fulfill it to others in the organization.

Leading the effort to imbue your organization with sustainability thinking is neither an easy task, nor a one-time effort.  As Machiavelli noted, “…[I]t should be borne in mind that the temper of the multitude is fickle, and that while it is easy to persuade them of a thing, it is hard to fix them in that persuasion.”

The critical skills you’ll need and if you don’t have them, you’ll have to develop, are:

·        Constancy – being firmly committed to a vision; don’t flip flop, don’t give up, don’t make changes unless the political circumstances require a change in vision

·        Flexibility – the means of achieving the vision can vary; don’t be stuck in your view on how best to do things if there’s a better way

·        Listening – listen to others and understand their interests and needs; be politic in building support, coalitions, and addressing needs of those who will lose what they currently have

·        Humility – your job is to inspire others to do amazing things; give credit freely

·        Resiliency – there will be setbacks, barriers, and wrong turns; keep sight of your goals, reflect on how you might have done better, and try again

 At some point along the way, your organization is likely to undergo a change that will affect you.  It may be a transition to a new CEO with a different agenda or a shift in responsibilities that puts you in a different setting with a different network.  It’s your responsibility to adapt to these changes in a manner that fits with the new political reality and allows you to pursue a sustainability agenda.  And if there is an organizational change that leaves you with no choice but to leave, recognize that you are a political appointee and be gracious that you had an opportunity to change the organization for the better.  You might also remember that Machiavelli never did receive a job offer from Lorenzo de Medici.


NOTE:  Leith Sharp, Director, Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership, Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard School of Public Health, has some great insights in organizational change and sustainability leadership.  See