I’ve just finished reading a short book on leadership that I should have whizzed through in a week, but ended up reading over several months. Perhaps it’s the depressingly short winter days that were clouding my thinking, but I felt it incredibly difficult to answer the simplest question in the book, and supposedly the key to effective leadership: ‘What do you want to lead for?’
When I thought about this further I realised that I was having difficulty because I was limiting myself to the issues where I thought I could lead and make a difference. This self-limiting thinking is incredibly deflating and, by its nature, self-fulfilling. I felt afraid to declare my life devoted to tough causes like the environment. But we can’t dictate what drives us; it’s wired deep in our minds.
This reminds me of a story an old boss told me about becoming overwhelmed with working in our field. She is a very strong leader with a great passion for doing a job well. It must have been at Friday pub drinks and she was expressing this desire to just quit and take a job at her local supermarket stacking shelves. Her coworkers laughed and said she couldn’t escape who she was, after a month she’d be the store manager. If you care about doing things right you just can’t stop yourself.
After some honest reflect I saw that at its simplest level what really drives me is justice. I want to do the right thing and I want to see others doing the right thing. Other people who work in the field of sustainability may know what I mean. We are passionate about justice. We value the world we live in and we want governments, businesses and individuals to all take responsibility for ensuring it is a healthy and just place. We work hard to make this happen and invest a lot emotionally into our work. Setbacks can feel incredibly devastating. And unless you chain yourself to oil riggers, it can be hard to feel that you are making a tangible difference to challenges as big as climate change.
I compare this sense of futility that I sometimes get with my husband’s profession. He’s a doctor recently specialised in public health. For him, answering the question ‘what do you want to lead for’ is as straightforward as it gets. He wants to save and improve lives. His work contributes to that daily. When he worked in the A&E it was more obvious, but now his work can impact on entire populations – which is pretty impressive and inspiring. If we, as sustainability professionals, could measure the impact of our work in the same way health professionals can, we might have a completely different sense of our value in society and the importance of our work.
Sustainability in the built environment is about designing places where people can live healthy and fulfilling lives. For a start, this means ensuring that everybody has equitable access to clean air and water, basic services and a place to live. Sustainability is also about the physical and social infrastructure that supports people to build social capital in their community. These issues are no less important than the role of a doctor in A&E. As a society, we just aren’t as clear about how the built environment affects our health and wellbeing. And even in the world’s most beautiful cities and idyllic country villages, we haven’t got those basics sorted. So sustainability professionals need to learn how to measure the impact of our work. As leaders in this profession we need to start providing evidence about the mistakes we’ve made with the built environment in the past. And we need to shout about the effect this has on everybody’s lives. It would be so much easier to explain what we do for a living and to drive our organisations forward, if we were clearer on the crucial role we play in society.
I read How to make a bigger difference by leading at work and at home, by Steve Radcliffe, on the recommendation of colleague who hopes to encourage others in our company to become leaders, regardless of their position in the organisational hierarchy.