The top sustainability leaders have these 5 qualities

What makes someone a sustainability leader?

Impactful sustainability leaders will be the ones with the courage and support to commit to change. Fear of saying the wrong thing or making difficult and finely-balanced decisions that alienate one group of stakeholders to the advantage of another can prevent organisations and their leaders from saying anything meaningful (or memorable).

For those willing to show up consistently, hold themselves accountable for the actions of their business, people and partners – now is the moment to establish a strong and reputable leadership position. True leaders will look outward to drive change beyond their own company, displaying empathy, leading with integrity, and creating an honest vision for the future.

The speed and scale of transition to stronger sustainability principles and action is fueled by a company’s leadership – a team that must be visible and prepared for scrutiny. There is enormous opportunity for business leaders to drive meaningful, transformative change, but with leadership behaviours so closely linked to brand value, the stakes have increased.

A new era of leadership

The constant evolution of expectations placed on leaders is exciting, and at times, daunting. CEOs and their senior executives must balance the needs of all stakeholders while also becoming public-facing advocates on key social and environmental issues.

To assist in balancing risk, readiness and effective storytelling, communicators can prepare executives to take a leadership role with accountability and integrity. There are five key behaviours leaders need to consider in order to be impactful and authentic in their communication with all stakeholders:

Act with integrity

Almost 80% of respondents of Sefiani’s Sustainability Communications Survey listed integrity as the number one trait of sustainability leadership. As author Simon Sinek memorably said, “The leader sets the tone, so integrity is everything.” Sinek notes both integrity and courage are vital traits for leaders to navigate the new world order and break new ground.

Address the good and the bad

All (100%) of industry leaders interviewed for the Sefiani Sustainability Communications Survey said sustainability leaders should be honest with stakeholders about the challenges they face, including when they fall short. Being open and transparent about challenges and set-backs in a timely manner generates goodwill. A 2022 study by Pino showed that consumers interpret the admission of challenges as a signal of transparency and tend to trust companies that voluntarily disclose setbacks.

Serialise storytelling

Tell the small stories by framing each moment as a step in the longer journey to drive momentum and mobilise all stakeholders behind one vision.

Be accountable and answer tough questions

Author and speechwriter Don Watson famously coined the term ‘weasel words’ for language commonly used by politicians and business leaders to give “the appearance of truth whilst protecting the speaker from attack or legal redress”. Avoid weasel words by speaking clearly, directly and succinctly, and doing away with unnecessary jargon.

Inspire stakeholders

A leader who helps stakeholders understand and get excited about sustainability will be a magnet for talent, and a driver of real change. Understand what motivates individual stakeholder groups and directly address their concerns or highlight the benefits of your sustainability strategy as it relates to them. Finding this balance is where the inherent tension – and communications opportunity – resides.

If you’re ready to have a voice in the conversation and lead with courage and integrity, we’re here to help.

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