Encouraging Transformational Leadership

Capacity

Heather Grady, Vice President, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and Steward, Financing Transformation Working Group of the Forum

Transformational leadership is crucial to address today’s challenges, but our societies don’t share an understanding of what it means, nor lay the groundwork to nurture and encourage transformational leaders. Where should we look, and what kind of attributes should we seek out, if we want to support such leaders?

One can start by thinking about the transformational levers that will help countries individually and collectively achieve the future we want to create as embodied in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which have been committed to by all governments and a growing number of civil society organizations, businesses and foundations. Four critically important levers are influencing public policy, shifting market and investor behaviour, designing new technologies for good, and supporting positive social movements. Transformational leadership would span these levers, and leaders across sectors will need to work in tandem to utilize them to best effect. What would this look like if applied to, say, the field of environment, and SDGs that relate directly to it:

  • SDG2: end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture;
  • SDG13: take urgent action to fight climate change and its impacts;\
  • SDG14: conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources; and
  • SDG15: sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss.

What will be expected of business leaders? Today we think of successful business leaders as rainmakers who have the power and influence to make deals so that their companies thrive and grow. Transformational business leaders will be those who bring environmental and social costs now externalized into their core business profit-and-loss statements. They will look for product and process innovations that protect the environment in the long term even if they require extra investment in the short term. They will ensure their teams across the world don’t cut corners in supply chain sourcing or following environmental regulations. And they will defend these practices in the face of opposition by shareholders or investors.

What will be expected of government leaders? They may need to sacrifice campaign contributions or votes in favour of taking a tough line on environmental protection laws. They will need to search outside their jurisdiction for public policies and government practices that incorporate a far higher bar on environmental concerns. They, too, will need to be open to innovations that could shed an unfavourable light on their usual practices, which are often driven by inertia or entrenched bureaucracy.

What about civil society leadership? Creating the ‘world we want’ will require far more facilitative, humble leadership, backed up by a more diverse and inclusive approach to community building. Equally important, we will need individuals who practise what they preach, and lead with their values in day-to-day interactions, in how they carry out their work, and in how they communicate their beliefs. To create large, fundamental, and radical transitions to a more positive desired state, we need to discern roadmaps for leadership built around collective, community-led, and collaborative action.

Finally, across all sectors, we will need leaders who acknowledge and redress unequal power dynamics, and who can build fellowship and be unerringly attentive to those who most face discrimination and disempowerment. Leaders will need to have the mettle to press on, guided by their beliefs, even when their shareholders, or political parties, or funders, try to dissuade them – leaders who focus on the long game, despite so many pressures to accomplish more tangible short-term wins.

How can funders support this work? In addition to funding the individual leaders and their organizations, departments, and programmes, more support is needed for network building. Organic networks like Tendrel and Harambeans are examples of how transformational leaders have designed networks to help them keep the momentum going. Moral support from peers helps nurture leadership, particularly in times of conflict and tension. Financial support from funders helps ease the resource burden, and builds in the basis for more sustained positive change.

This blog was produced in partnership with the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

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