Book Review: A New Psychology for Sustainability Leadership

There are three fundamental approaches to changing bad behavior: expose and punish it, model and reinforce good behavior, or change the paradigm that drives the bad behavior in the first place. Thousands of books and articles, myriad reports, and reams of legislation regarding business and sustainable development have been written with a focus on the first two approaches. In his book, A New Psychology for Sustainability Leadership, Steve Schein provides a refreshing and insightful take on the third.

In his conversations with 75 global sustainability leaders—arguably amongst the best examples in the world—he uncovers key themes that frame their deeper psychological motivations.  Why is that important? Because only by understanding the mental models (which Schein refers to as “worldviews”) that drive the most effective behavior (at least to date) will we be able to seed and cultivate more positive, sustainable leadership—both amongst leaders of today and in the future.

“On the one hand, we can blame corporations as a whole for the ecological crisis. However, when we consider their potential to radically reduce their impacts, reinvent their energy sources and repurpose their infrastructure to eventually restore Earth’s ecosystems, the sustainable business movement may be the single most effective environmental movement in the world today. When we take into account how this affects the availability of food and water for the planet’s poorest people, a case can likewise be made that it is also the most important social justice movement.”

Through riveting examples and comprehensive research, Schein provides a logical framework for business leaders, academics, and students to lead transformational change.

Read an excerpt from A New Psychology for Sustainability Leadership: The Hidden Power of Ecological Worldviews by Steve Schein, Chapter 8, “Interior Dimensions of Leadership,” and reprinted with permission.

Since World War II, researchers have been asking: “What makes great leadership?” “How do successful leaders become who they are?” and “What are the skills and capacities that make them successful?”

Until the middle of the 20th century, centralization of power and control were the primary themes in the leadership literature. As a result, many answers to these questions initially centered on the military, and many of the great leaders written about in the United States were famous generals such as Patton and Eisenhower. Based on principles of scientific management and the rational man, modern leadership theory began to emerge in the middle part of the 20th century.

Significant alternatives to the “great man” theories emerged in the late 20th century that focus more on self-awareness and broader purpose. Terms including “servant leadership”, “primal leadership”, “authentic leadership” and “enlightened leadership” began to appear.

Based on my experience in the corporate world and in higher education, the most important capacity for leaders to develop involves their psychological and emotional development. This includes a greater awareness of values, motivations, and deeper purpose. When my awareness of the ecological crisis deepened, I discovered how servant leadership and emotionally intelligent leadership lead to serving not only the people around us, but also the natural environment around us. I discovered new ways that these leadership philosophies can contribute to a psychology for sustainability leadership.

Servant leadership

By proposing that the real work of a leader is to ask themselves the question, “How can I best use myself to serve?” former AT&T executive Robert Greenleaf proposed a new type of leadership philosophy focused on service to others instead of ego and power. In doing so, he catalysed a family of more holistic leadership theory based on interior, psychological and spiritual dimensions.

Greenleaf’s book was a game-changer for me. When I first read it I had been leading companies for almost 20 years, or so I thought I had. Having been president of a pair of companies that were rolled up into a public company in the late 1990s, I experienced financial success. However, what was missing was a more expansive social and ecological perspective. Possessing a highly competitive nature, I was the typical “Type A” executive. I defined success primarily on financial terms and drove those around me too hard. I experienced extreme amounts of stress and anxiety. During the evening and on weekends, I was unable to turn off and focus on being fully present with my wife and three young children. My approach to leadership was clearly not sustainable for the long term.

However, when I first read Greenleaf’s words, I immediately understood that the real purpose of leadership, especially if it is to have any lasting value, is about service. I was able to rethink how I thought about the purpose of business. I began to experiment with ways I could empower those around me by seeking their ideas along the way from a broader perspective. I began to think more about the consequences of my actions and the role my company was playing in the world. I found that I no longer had to lead in a top-down hierarchical way, and that I could trust people to find new creative solutions that led to longer-lasting results.

This experience ultimately led me to the realization that a philosophy of servant leadership can underlie a psychology for sustainability leadership. When seen through the lens of an ecological worldview, servant leadership expands to include service to all species and the broader ecosystems within which business and our entire way of life exists.

Emotional intelligence

The second major approach to leadership I use to help students explore their deeper motivations for sustainability leadership is rooted in research about the emotional intelligence of leaders. In Primal Leadership, psychologist Daniel Goleman and his colleagues Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee describe how great leaders act foremost as emotional guides. Based on decades of research from numerous sources, they highlight empathy and self-awareness as vital capacities for transformational leadership.

A distinctive aspect of their research comes from the field of neuroscience, where scientists are able to study the limbic emotional centres of our brains. Neurosciences researchers have been able to observe that when we work together in groups, our emotions are part of what they call open loop systems. This means that we effectively catch feelings from each other. As we all know from our own experiences in organizations, the emotions of leaders play a disproportionately important role. Goleman and his colleagues observe how the emotions of top leaders have a sort of domino effect that ripples through a company’s emotional climate.

They conclude that in order to inspire deeper passion and motivation over the long term, leaders need to create what they call resonance in their organizations. They observe that emotionally intelligent leaders have the unique capacity to create a shared way of interpreting and making sense of any given situation confronting their organizations, especially in times of chaos and crises.

As we continue to explore the interior dimensions of sustainability leadership, we can see that, in order to successfully lead organizations towards a deeper transformation to sustainability, a high level of emotional intelligence will be required. Goleman and his co-authors observe, “throughout history and in cultures everywhere, the leader in any human group has been the one to whom others look for assurance and clarity when facing uncertainty or threat.”

Given our accelerating vulnerability to the effects of climate change and the inevitable emotional toll on people in organizations, integrating emotional intelligence will have increasing relevance for sustainability leadership.

Systems thinking

During leadership and strategy courses, I try various approaches to embed systems thinking in the minds of business students.

Explaining that at its core, every organization is a function of how its members think and interact, the authors include various strategies to expand the capacity for systems thinking such as personal mastery, ladders of inference and mental models. All of these are designed to help people carefully examine and change the way they think.

What I find noteworthy is that, by using permaculture to teach principles of natural capitalism, business students appear to grasp systems thinking in a deeper way. Then, as they complete personal sustainability projects based on alternative transportation, waste repurposing, renewable energy, green building, water stewardship and carbon reduction, students make further connections. During an 11-week term, a new understanding of systems thinking and interdependence between healthy ecosystems, human health, human rights and economics stabilizes in the minds of students.

Is sustainability driving human development?

In the last decade, much has been written about sustainability leadership from the perspective of innovation, strategy, marketing and management. However, except for a small number of recent small-sample studies and theoretical articles, no cohesive theory of sustainability leadership has reached the corporate or academic mainstream literature. Based on my observations about systems thinking emerging in the minds of students while studying permaculture, a new pair of questions emerged as part of my research into worldviews. How does the practice of sustainability affect worldviews? And vice versa, how do worldviews affect sustainability leadership? In other words, what is the relationship between sustainability and the process of human development? A way to explore these questions presents itself when we consider that developmental psychology researchers have empirically demonstrated over several decades that enhanced systems thinking is a key indicator of advanced stages of psychological development.

This excerpt is published  with the permission of Greenleaf Publishing.  The book is available at or–

Laura Asiala

Laura Asiala

Laura Asiala is the Vice President, Public Affairs at PYXERA Global. Passionate about the power of business to solve—or help solve—the world’s most intransigent problems, she leads the efforts to attract more participation of businesses to contribute to sustainable development through their people and their work. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Net Impact, a community of more than 40,000 student and professional leaders creating positive social and environmental change in the workplace.

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