The scoop on sustainability leadership

By Susanne Martin, Managing Editor

As part of the Canada’s Clean50 report, published in the November 21 Globe and Mail, we asked recent Clean50 honourees what it takes to become a sustainability leader. Here are some answers:

Rachel Parent, Founder, Kids Right to Know

When a person learns about the many issues affecting our planet, it brings forth a natural response: a desire to make things better.

Translating that response into becoming a sustainability leader begins with passion. To find your passion, think carefully about what issue bothers you the most. Finding the passion within is a necessary first step. Without it, you’ll find it difficult to stay focused and motivated.

The next step is to educate yourself about the cause behind your passion. Dig deep; don’t believe everything you see on TV or hear in the media. Track down the research, read the studies, talk to people on both sides and keep an open mind.

When you’ve taken those first two steps, you are ready to take action.

Taking action means taking charge, finding your voice, having a clear message and speaking up at every opportunity.

For me, being a sustainability leader means connecting with seed and food producers, speaking with governments, meeting with educators, supporting local and organic markets and other organizations that care about how our food is produced from seed to plate. It means educating people about the impact that every purchase they make can have on the environment and the future of our planet.

Having the passion, commitment and courage to create change, to make a difference no matter how difficult, is what transforms us from a concerned person into a sustainability leader.

Mike Morrice, Executive Director, Sustainability CoLab

7-2i Mike Morrice.jpg

As in other fields, it takes a mix of factors to become a sustainability leader: some of which we can fully control, some we only partially control, and some we don’t control at all.

Of those we can control, passion is the classic example: we can each choose to lead in a field we’re deeply passionate about. And it’s this passion – the kind that can’t be faked – that captures others’ attention and is worthy of following.

Of those we can only somewhat control, these are traits that are difficult to be taught. Like an ability to get others excited about a vision. Knowing whom to hire. Keeping a group of people focused on a common goal. These can be learned over time, though.

Lastly, those factors we can’t control at all, like luck – the right timing, connection, conversation. The synchronicity of life. And there’s privilege, for example related to gender, upbringing and race, which loads the dice unfairly. And naming this privilege is part of what it takes to be a leader, as we all join in levelling the playing field in Canada.

Merran Smith, Director, CLEAN ENERGY CANADA

Sustainability leaders are a unique breed. You can’t become one by completing a particular degree, or by attending a retreat with the “right people.” Leaders in my line of work rise to the top because they possess certain characteristics: vision, openness and tenacity.

Vision means knowing where you want to go. A visionary leader does not only paint an inspiring picture of the future, but also possible paths to get there. A leader “walks the talk” and takes steps to make that future tangible and accessible. In my field, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s bolting solar panels to her roof or trading in her gas-guzzler for an electric vehicle (although those things impress me). Instead, she makes decisions based on evidence and expert counsel, not ideology or dogma.

Openness means sustainability leaders spend a lot of time outside their comfort zone. With emotional intelligence, they are able to build bridges between diverse interests. They make an extra effort to reach beyond the “friendlies” and seek the views of those who don’t agree with them, or even actively oppose them.

Finally, such leaders possess a combination of passion, innovation and grit – they keep at it. Trying to change the world is a tough slog. Progress is typically glacial; there are few sweeping victories, just a long series of small engagements. But leaders surround themselves with great teammates, keep laughing and keep at it without compromising their values.