6 Key Qualities of a Sustainable Leader

Recently, our co-founder Markus F. Peschl gave an interview for the Becoming a Sustainable Leader podcast with Anna Jurgaś. They talked about the most important leadership qualities for the 21st century and how managers can put them into practice. In this blog post, we summarize the key points of their conversation. You can listen to the full podcast here.

1. Creating a common understanding of purpose

The first point Markus mentions is that to enable a team to work autonomously, a leader needs to make sure all its members have a joint understanding of where they want to go. Each member needs to be clear on the question of: “How can I contribute to the purpose of my company?” A leader is like a conductor who orchestrates the organization to enable employees to grow, prosper and fulfill the purpose of the company.

2. Shifting from controlling to enabling

There has been a shift in mindset of employees which has happened over the last 20 years. Young people don’t want to just follow orders, but to co-create them. An ideal leader for the future times needs to shift their mindset from that of controlling to one of enabling. 

They need to learn to balance giving freedom and providing direction at the same time. An enabling leader is skilled in creating enabling environments for their employees, where they can have autonomy – one of the key motivators for people engaging in all kinds of work. 

This requires creating a culture of trust – one that isn’t just a motto on the wall, but which can be felt in every interaction between the employees (and their leaders/superiors). People need to feel comfortable with expressing themselves honestly and authentically.

3. Becoming a generalist

According to Markus, leadership used to be relatively easy in the past. A manager was only expected to make sure their employees are working in an organized way and fulfilling their tasks and goals.

However, today, leaders have to take on many more roles – they need to become a futurist, psychologist, technologist, or at least be aware of these topics and find people who will co-develop these things with them. A sustainable leader needs to be a generalist – have a holistic perspective and be able to build living systems that continue to work on their own.

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4. Developing systems thinking capacities

Seeing the world and organizations from the perspective of systems allows leaders to better understand the connections and relationships that go on in them. In a hyper-connected VUCA world, organizations are becoming huge networks that are more and more complex and difficult to navigate. An effective leader knows how to orient themselves in these systems and better anticipate the outcomes of their actions although they have to acknowledge that they cannot be predicted in every detail.

5. Reflecting on your attitude towards the world

Becoming a future-oriented leader requires developing attitudes which are incompatible with the often celebrated image of a superhero or a borderline narcissistic manager. It requires becoming truly receptive to what is happening around them and understanding (and respecting) that people can have different interpretations of events.

Leading a team this way means engaging in a dialogue with your colleagues and negotiating the meaning of what is happening cooperatively. This also means that you need to periodically question your own assumptions and reflect on them. It’s no wonder that mindfulness meditation has been shown as an effective part of a leader’s toolkit.

Sustainability is not about projecting our own ideas, but deeply understanding what is going on in the world and co-creating it.

6. Defining your own purpose

What is the essence of what you do? This is a question every leader needs to ask themselves. A strong purpose, rooted in future potentials, goes a long way towards creating innovative and sustainable solutions. But in most organizations, fear is the main driver. Leaders often try to cover themselves and reduce risk as much as possible. However, this approach by itself is not going to work anymore.

An increasingly chaotic VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) now creates a business environment where leaders can’t control everything anymore. The key skill is then working out a way to still achieve goals and create new meaning by enabling and giving up control, while steering your organization towards a bigger purpose.

How do you know you are a good leader?

In the podcast, Markus has also shared a few tips on how to assess the quality of your leadership: 

  • Look at the quality of life in your team. How do the people feel? Do they feel their work has purpose? Do you offer them an environment in which they may grow? 
  • Observe the social atmosphere in your organization. How are people interacting? Are they honest and caring? Or are they afraid to speak their mind?
  • Assess your own quality of life. Are you generally relaxed or are you stressed out all the time? Many leaders think that constantly reaching their limits is a part of the job. However, this is not the way of a sustainable leader.
  • Look how aligned people are in your team or organization. Does everyone work towards a common goal and purpose? Do you have a good balance between autonomy and alignment? Or is each person only seeking their goals?

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