Leadership for Sustainability: An Action Research Approach

Leadership for SustainabilityI rarely read a leadership text from cover to cover, but I found this to be a page turner, reading more like a novel, difficult to put down, and I wondered what each of the short stories would reveal as people have been moved to: “take on the challenges of living courageously in extraordinary times” (p.1).

The background story, told by editors Judi Marshall, Gill Coleman and Peter Reason in chapters one to three is of the development and growth of an MSc programme in Responsible Business Practice (RBP), launched in 1997 at Bath University. The programme was co-founded by the editors and inspired by the work of Anita Roddick, to whom this book is dedicated.

Gill Coleman

The MSc alumni maintain the RBP community, people working in situations all over the world, in organizations of varying size, across a number of professional disciplines, governments, corporations and charities.

Chapters four to eleven comprise short personal accounts written by 30 members of the RBP community, stories telling of past action and ongoing activities initiated over the last thirteen years. The main purpose of the book is to publicise and promote these stories of leadership for sustainability. And what a range of leadership activities they include! From a local neighbourhood action research project in the northwest of England to the conservation of black-maned lions in Addis Ababa, via local produce for school meals in New York, a triathlon event in Weymouth and building an eco-factory to make clothes for Marks & Spencer in Sri Lanka. So diverse, what might they have in common?

This book is about action; real life action taken by people invigorated by learning and their sense of community. It reflects on:

  • “What practices of leadership and change for sustainability based on action research might look like, and a sense of the personal and professional challenges these involve.
  • “How participants draw on reflective practice both strategically to create contexts in which they can be influential and tactically in moment to moment choices about how to act.
  • “What kinds of outcome can be expected from this work – the specific and strategic achievements, and the difficulties, challenges and disappointments.” (p.2)

Judi Marshall

I cannot do justice to 29 stories here, and I would hate to miss out any one, as they each tell of unique ways of applying common threads of learning, shared beliefs and values. This is where you have to read the book to really appreciate the passion, energies, highs and lows of everyday managers and leaders, putting their learning into practice, each in their individual contexts. They go to show how we can all do something if we are moved to do so.

Peter Reason

I really appreciate the way in which the editors do not try to tie all “learnings” into a “six steps to achieve sustainability” framework. Instead they explain how they have purposefully avoided categorisation or firm conclusions, concerned this may “deaden the stories and interfere with the reader’s, your, own sense-making” (p.3). Preferring to raise questions and “notice interesting strands” (p.3) in the way of action inquiry they ask in the final chapter “what have we collectively learned”? (p.220)

In bringing these stories together the editors had in mind activists from all sectors of business and society, as well as fellow educators and those who support others to develop leadership practice. I imagine other programme directors may wish they had grabbed this niche, tracking learning into the heart of workplace change; it may encourage others to follow in this vein.

By Sue Chapman, an independent leadership learning coach and facilitator studying at the University of Exeter

The full article can be read in the Business Leadership Review. To find out more about this publication, visit the Association of MBAs site here.

Leadership for SustainabilityAVAILABLE NOW: Buy Leadership for Sustainability direct from Greenleaf Publishing and receive a 30% discount. Use voucher code BLR725 at checkout.


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