A western group of U.S. Forest Service units—under the Department of Agriculture—recently adopted a set of Leadership for Sustainability principles to inform the purpose of their work and the culture of the workplace. I found out about this collaborative endeavor while attending a forestry conference in March where co-author Ruth McWilliams, a Forest Service retiree and volunteer, presented the principles. Even though the document is written for federal employees, it reads like a guide for any and all pioneers of sustainable culture.
Below is an abridged version of 10 Principles for Leadership for Sustainability:
- VISION BOLDLY – With vision one must boldly declare a direction even if it is one no one else has taken. Vision is critical to leading by example. It is a source of inspiration, and supports the emergence of clear decision-making criteria.
- MONITOR WITH MEANING – Solutions to complex problems are best measured by metrics that provide the right feedback to the right part of the system at the right time. Monitoring with meaning acknowledges that the why, how, and when are often more important than the what. This includes fostering measures of success that serve to correct the course, provide timely feedback to the right people, and track our learning process.
- LIFT THE CONSUMPTION CURTAIN – We are often inclined to categorize sustainability efforts by impact category (i.e., energy, water, waste). A true systems perspective will reveal interconnectivity and help us question our assumptions about categorization. As tempting as it is to assign a technical expert to reduce our consumption in a particular impact category, taking the time instead to uncover connections between various resource areas may lead to larger and more meaningful changes.
- TOP DOWN FROM BOTTOM UP – Innovation occurs at all levels in the organization. Innovators lead the way by creating change that aligns the current situation with the opportunities they see. They create inventive, place-based solutions to sustainability issues, providing the resilience needed to face contemporary challenges, such as that of a changing climate. Resilient agencies take advantage of emergent possibility with actions and attitudes that value, nurture, and grow innovators, regardless of pay grade or organizational location.
- PROD, PROBE, POINT – Leverage points are places within a system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything. Effective leaders are on constant lookout for effective leverage points. They also do what’s necessary to assist the system through transitions that arise when leverage points are activated.
- SYSTEM DESIGN WITH NATURE – The Earth’s natural systems offer some positive, inspiring examples. Biomimicry is an approach that uses nature as model, mentor, and measure to help us understand how natural systems retain their resilience by adapting, changing, and evolving into new solutions in the face of adversity. Ecology-based design principles, such as those articulated by the science of biomimicry, can provide an overarching framework for sustainability.
- RIGHT-SIZE INTERVENTIONS – A sustainability mindset underscores the need to not just identify resources but also understand the surrounding conditions in order to make sure new models and approaches fit the place and culture. Leaders for sustainability seek an understanding of context. They know that for their work to endure, strategies must be locally attuned and responsive to the realities of place-based natural and human resources at that moment in time.
- HOOK IT UP – Sustainability is not an endeavor to undertake by oneself. Rather, it requires the building of a ‘base camp’ that capitalizes on the oomph in a group that is stirred by a common sense of purpose. Sustainability leaders take the time to understand the limitations of their own organization, seek out collaborators—partners to build a supportive base camp—and value what others contribute.
- PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE…THEN TAKE NOTE – Leaders furthering sustainability inherently understand that adaptation, resilience, and improvement occur through experimentation, learning, feedback, and ongoing reflection. Reporting, discussing, learning from failures and successes, and giving credit while not assigning blame, are all critical to the process. Accomplished sustainability leaders are lifelong learners.
- EMBRACE THE CHAOS – Often, implementing new mandates and directions leads to ‘realignment’ or ‘reorganization.’ While we may regard these changes and associated flux with apprehension, they are also sources of great opportunity. In both natural and human systems, the rules continuously change and evolve, requiring new ways of doing business. Powerful leaders seek and create conditions within organizations that are conducive to social innovation and cultural shifts.
Download the entire document from the U.S. Forest Service website at http://www.fs.fed.us/sustainableoperations/documents/leadership_principles.pdf
Ruth McWilliams may be contacted for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org