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We’ve seen a significant shift in leadership in recent times. How can we embrace sustainable leadership?

28 March 2022

In recent years, mounting social pressure has contributed to a significant shift in the type of leadership seen across organisations. Dr Joanne James and Dr Jenny Davidson share their thoughts on sustainable leadership.

As the world becomes increasingly aware of the impact businesses have on the triple bottom line, those at the top need to embrace sustainable leadership.

Sustainable leadership is all about adopting a responsible approach to the way that we lead, stopping to think about the wider impact of our actions on society and the environment. This might mean considering our wider stakeholder group, the natural systems within which we are operating and their limits.

It’s crucial to begin by exploring and understanding how our individual roles might contribute to tackling global challenges such as climate change and gender inequality, and in doing so, to recognise the value that our actions might bring. Responsible leaders are always looking up and out beyond their role, organisation and sector.

A lecturer discusses the sustainable development goals in a lecture with a screen with a diagram in the background

The UN Sustainability Goals

Using the UN Sustainability Goals framework for professional development is a great way to put a much-needed spotlight on sustainable development.

Tackling the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can feel daunting as an individual but embedding it as a focus at the heart of organisations and continued professional development will ensure it is at the forefront of the future of work.

Tackling sustainability as an organisation

Organisations can make a start on a more sustainable approach by identifying which of the SDGs are material to their business and then considering how the aims of this goal can inform their future strategy. 

For example, Goal 8 addresses decent work and economic growth, aiming to create decent jobs for all and to improve living standards. Whilst this goal is influenced by macroeconomic policy, businesses can take a responsible stance, treating SMEs within their supply chains fairly. They can also consider the role they might play in their regional recovery by supporting people in work with training.

Meanwhile, Goal 12 refers to sustainable consumption, challenging businesses to review their use of water, energy and materials in production practices, as well as encouraging innovation to achieve resource efficiency across a product lifecycle.

Whichever goals the business selects to get started, they should aim to integrate the lessons throughout their strategic planning across each function and throughout the supply chain.

Supporting future leaders through education

Leadership education for the future of work recognises that we are working in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous contexts (VUCA). Leadership is not a position or an individual person, but a series of practices that enables collaborative action toward a common mission. Continuous learning and collaboration with others are central to these practices.

Linking individual values and a focused approach to tackling the SDGs provides purpose and understanding for individuals and helps to make sense of how personal and professional priorities link to global issues.

Two people sit in a lecture theatre. One leans over to the other and they look at something in a notebook.

This can be achieved through exploration of individual values and purpose alongside exercises to help individuals to understand the SDGs, so plans can be created to truly tackle these issues and create impact.

This allows individuals to not only tackle industry and business demands responsibly but make a positive change to the way they approach different aspects of their life.  


Sustainability is at the heart of all of our Executive Education programmes which are designed for senior leaders.

About the authors

Dr Jenny Davidson

Dr Jenny Davidson is the Programme Director of the Executive EMBA programme. Jenny is also a Senior Lecturer in Leader Development and Organisation Futures team which focuses on bringing together organisations and the university in a shared ambition of supporting leaders in the changing contexts of work. 

Jenny's current projects include the role of women in sustainability, responsible leadership,  partner selection processes for delivering against the Sustainable Development Goals and how to build a responsible MBA. 

Dr Joanne James

Dr Joanne James is Director of Executive Education at Newcastle University Business School. Joanne's research centres on coaching and leadership and she is particularly interested in the professional development journey that we all participate in as we navigate our professional lives.

Joanne is responsible for the development and delivery of a suite of part-time, work-based Executive Education programmes: