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Sustainability and Leadership

Today’s leaders are required to operate with a view to sustainability.  We know that it is critical that we begin to operate in this way.  We know that the old management orthodoxies are not sustainable, and we know that we have a responsibility to train people in discerning a mode of operating that is.  However, what we are not so good at is distinguishing what constitutes true sustainability with regards to leadership in our enterprises (Hames 2007).

Operating from the viewpoint of sustainability requires different leadership and management styles and practices that may take some work to design and implement.  Once installed, this contextual and practical shift will contribute a foundation on which schools can clearly plan and operate with a view to the sustainability of the organisation, its people and their vision for its future (Enderlin-Lampe 2002).  This is the level of leadership that is considered to be necessary for designing, developing and delivering an education system that will train and develop today’s young people in dealing powerfully with the challenges that will face them (Dinham 2007).

The concept of sustainability recognises that any action has an impact, not only now, but in the future.  Being responsible for the impact in both temporalities can allow for sustainability in the true sense of the word, not just as the fashionable catch phrase that it can be diminished into.  Karl-Henrik Robert, founder of the international organisation  “The Natural Step” has distinguished what are now agreed to be the irrefutable principles of sustainability.  While this might occur as a little ‘out of left field’ when considering the role of leadership in an educational organisation, maybe it is important to blend this thinking into the decision-making processes that are employed.  After all, which of us would want that which we invest so much of our time, energy and attention on to vanish before it could fulfil its potential if that could be avoided?

The thinking is one of elegant simplicity, not reductionism.  It requires ‘systems thinking’ and operating from principles (Robert 1997).  It starts with operating from the point of view that “it is possible”.  Look at what demand is put on the resources of the school system, and are they sustainable?   What are the consequences of continuing to operate in the way that is currently used?  There are simple conditions to consider in the decision-making process to establish if the action will be sustainable.  For instance, ensure that nothing will accumulate unnaturally as a result of this action.  Ensure that the productivity and diversity of the environment is not deteriorated as a result of this course of action.  Ensure that all human needs are met with fair and efficient use of resources (Robert 2008).

How do we apply this to a school, and to staff?  Here are some possible interpretations.  For instance, maybe “do not accumulate” applies to points of view and opinions as much as it does to substances in the environment.  Do not undermine others and their ability to function effectively, and do not undermine yourself.  That can apply equally to staff and to students.  Value diversity. Create avenues for its expression.  Again, it can apply equally to staff and to students.  Determine the needs of the staff and use creativity and innovation to meet them where necessary.  Create goals to express this and have it be real.  Of course, inside of there is to make sure that any action taken is also financially viable.  Without that, no course of action would be truly sustainable.  Once more, these principles might seem to simple for complex minds, but if schools are going to truly operate from, and be able to train people in what it really is to be sustainable, then being aware of and using these simple principles is of the utmost importance.

Robert (1997, 2008) also offers a simple and effective mode of thinking and planing which he has termed ‘Back-casting’.  Most people forecast; they project forwards through time to determine a course of action to produce a particular result.  Robert proposes the practice of ‘back-casting’, which has people considering these future goals, as well as future impact, when making their decisions today.  This requires thinking through detailed pictures of the future that is intended, detailed examination of possible scenarios, consideration of resources required, and examination of what would transpire if the situation were left as is.  It involves looking at the impact both up and down-stream – which can be readily translated to people, not just things.  One starts with the intended outcome, then carefully considers the course of action and the likely impact of each step, identifies milestones, the resources required, and a course of action that will work.  What then becomes clear is the first step to take on the path to producing the result in a way that is sustainable.  This process has the whole course of action be designed inside of a sufficient level of thinking and responsibility that will give the highest probability of longevity and flourishing.  An added bonus can be that the students of an educational organisation run in such a manner will be growing and developing in an environment and a culture that uses this mode of thinking.  It is a mode that is becoming increasingly necessary given the state of present-day society.

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