A. Leadership Capacity

2. The Complexity of Sustainability

Currently viewing:  Refocus Home / Guidebook / Program Set Up / A. Leadership Capacity / 2. The Complexity of Sustainability

The Limitations of Conventional Leadership

Holistically addressing sustainability will have effects (and can generate benefits) across an entire organization. As was evident within the “How many leaders does it take to change a light bulb?” scenario at the beginning of this section, most organizations develop a sustainability program based on a confined view of the opportunity at hand. There are two particular issues to be avoided that demand more of leadership than other typical organizational challenges.

1. Narrow Program Focus:

Programs are very commonly driven by a narrow underlying interest in sustainability; most often that interest is focused on saving money through operational efficiency and/or doing the right thing, which is better known as corporate social responsibility. Of course there are other motivations that have influence such as regulatory requirements or the competition. In contrast to a program concerned with how sustainability can benefit the entire organization, a narrow program focus will limit the identification of project opportunities and the assessment of potential benefits. We will closely examine the spectrum of potential benefits associated with pursuing sustainability within the final section of the Program Setup which covers Measurement Capacity.  

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) – is a form of corporate self-regulation integrated into a business model. CSR policy functions as a self-regulatory mechanism whereby a business monitors and ensures its active compliance with the spirit of the law, ethical standards and international norms. With some models, a firm’s implementation of CSR goes beyond compliance and engages in actions that appear to further some social good, beyond the interests of the firm and that which is required by law. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporate_social_responsibility

Click here to find the definition of Corporate Social Responsibility

A narrow focus will cause an organization to miss valuable opportunities and to pursue projects that don’t offer the greatest overall benefits. Ironically, an organization with a narrow focus would likely fail to even recognize it had missed those opportunities, because nobody would have been looking for them in the first place.

As an example, consider again our lighting retrofit example. The Operations Manager’s narrow program goal of saving money would likely lead to a hasty acceptance of the retrofit in its initially proposed form. The organization would miss out on the potential benefits related to marketing, productivity, safety, employee satisfaction, etc. 

2. Decision Making Silos:

Often is the case that each department or area of an organization will independently address sustainability matters. As such, decisions are made in silos, based only on the interests of each individual department or area. That is not surprising, given that is how most organizations are structured to plan, budget and report, but it is not effective for sustainability programs. 

Even when a program has a broad mandate, if leadership doesn’t encourage cross-departmental collaboration, then it is unlikely decisions will be made with the interests of the whole organization in mind. Strong inter-organizational collaboration is necessary to realize a program’s full potential. Most projects will produce an array of benefits, and accommodating the interests of areas across an organization will demand developing new ways of working together.

To learn more about building a collaborative workplace and breaking down decision making silos in your organization click here  icon_library_16x16

In the case of our lighting retrofit, what is needed is some inter-departmental collaboration and discussion. Without a structure to support creating discussion, the ideas of different departments may not be shared.1

The Need for Unconventional Approaches

“Organizations are social systems with well-established norms from top executives to lower level employees. If a more superficial approach is taken to move the organization towards sustainability it is likely the project will quickly be forgotten. On the other hand, if strong leaders break down barriers between departments, challenge old behaviours, norms and beliefs and see sustainability as more inter-related, it is possible to more fundamentally incorporate sustainability into every aspect of an organization.”2 – Bob Willard The Sustainability Champion’s Guidebook Pg. 14

The complexity of sustainability challenges demands new approaches and ways of thinking. Not only must leadership be able to appreciate the opportunities and challenges for what they are, but they must also win over the powers that be so that new strategies will be adopted to drive collaboration and focus on the organization’s best interest overall.

Single, double and triple loop learning are concepts that illustrate the learning process involved in finding solutions to problems. Depending on the complexity of the problem, different approaches need to be taken.3

  • Single Loop Learning: involves making improvements within the constraints of the current rules without challenging the underlying beliefs or assumptions. Changes are generally small actions based on past experiences. An example of a sustainability solution developed through single loop learning would be retrofitting light bulb to conserve energy.
  • Double Loop Learning: goes one step further by questioning the rules, leading to insights about why a solution works. People become observers of themselves asking “why do we do this” and “how does this affect us.” This provides a deeper understanding of a problem and its solutions and works for major fixes such as organizational structure. An example of a sustainability solution developed through double loop learning would be incorporating sustainability into organizational strategy and planning to establish a great place to work for all employees.
  • Triple Loop Learning: Goes beyond the assumptions and beliefs within an organization and considers context. By understanding how problems and solutions are related on a broader scale, you can produce new commitments and ways of learning that will make you more effective in connecting your actions with current problems. An example of a sustainability solution developed through triple loop learning is multi-sectoral collaboration that involves working with communities, NGOs and suppliers to dramatically advance how we do business.

In order to find solutions to sustainability problems that will actually make a difference in your organization and beyond, it is crucial that the leadership exercises double and triple loop learning. The traditional single loop learning approach limits programs resulting in a lack of true, positive change.

To watch a short and powerful video describing a case study in Borneo that emphasizes the need to apply sophisticated thinking to finding good solutions to sustainability challenges click here  icon_library_16x16


1. Kevin Wilhelm discusses in detail the importance of breaking down silos in Understanding Change Management to Guide Implementation of Sustainability found here: http://www.ftpress.com/articles/article.aspx?p=2137184&seqNum=5
2. Willard, B. (2009). The sustainability champion’s guidebook: how to transform your company. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society. Pg. 14. Available in print.
3. All single/double/triple loop learning information adapted from Barry Colbert’s 2013 book Reconstructing value: leadership skills for a sustainable world (D. Wheeler & E. Kurucz, Eds.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Available in print. 

Currently viewing:  Refocus Home / Guidebook / Program Set Up / A. Leadership Capacity / 2. The Complexity of Sustainability