Leading by example

14th October 2015

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  • Management ,
  • Stakeholder engagement ,
  • Employee engagement ,
  • Engagement


Richard Sobey

Sustainability practitioners can inspire best when they practice what they preach, says Jane Davidson.

John Rawls, the American philosopher, talks about inter-generational justice, where each generation should do unto future generations what they would have past generations do unto them.

Yet my generation has done the opposite, leaving young people in the UK in 2015 substantially poorer financially than we were at their age, living in a more fearful world and with a rapidly degrading environment. The 'right' response - global agreements on climate change for example - is too big to contemplate, even when encouraged as a prudent fiscal measure by the governor of the Bank of England. We are instead caught perpetually in a virtual Rubick's cube, where solutions elude us because achieving them is too complex.

Perhaps it is time to re-simplify. Those who have impressed me most in my life, have been people of conviction; people who live according to their values and principles, not people who say one thing and do another. For me, with the acquired wisdom of nearing retirement age, it is becoming increasingly simple; as Gandhi said; "Be the change you want to see in the world". My mission - for as long as I can remember - has been to encourage those I work with to believe that we all have a role in the delivery of this pithy instruction. If we are going to make beneficial changes for people and the planet, ultimately it starts with us all considering the way we live and our actions in leading by example, individually and collectively - and we all need to be leaders now.

I'm lucky. I'm privileged to work in a university; no ivory tower but a regional amalgamation of old and new in beautiful south west Wales, from its roots in Lampeter, the oldest university in England and Wales after Oxford and Cambridge, via its long established campus in Carmarthen to a new city centre neighbourhood university in Swansea. I lead on integrating sustainability principles through everything we do with the university's full support. We educate and train primarily those living in our region by aiming to deliver tangible benefits for learners, employers, industry and communities by integrating the principles of employability and sustainability.

When I was taken on in 2011 to establish a university institute for sustainability, I made one condition - that if we were going to advocate sustainability thinking, we had first to become a leader and beacon of excellence ourselves. This has required an intense systemic and systematic approach over four years to change our culture, our curriculum, our campuses and our wider community relations. But now, we can see results; the external accolades we win each year help keep the governors on board but it is the internal changes that count - the empowering of the passionate staff and students; the new activities; the 60+ sustainability link contacts in every school and department; the contested places on the sustainability committee; the new sustainability-led curriculum in every programme on offer. Everyone who has led these changes is a leader in their own right and more are springing up all the time. How better to educate tomorrow's community leaders than to give our students effective sustainability skills?

In April 2015, legislation I proposed in 2011, the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act passed into law requiring all public service organisations in Wales to take into account the needs of future generations. When times are fiscally tough, public services retreat to the delivery of their statutory responsibilities and short-termism which is unsustainable. As a university, having ensured that we are already exceeding the requirements of the Act, we are now ready to help others deliver on their new duties making the future more resilient for people and planet - at least in Wales.

I live in a refurbished barn where we grow most of our own food, run our well insulated house on our own wood, recycle, compost, and use renewable energy. I try to reduce my carbon footprint every year, but know that my individual actions, even if multiplied a million times over, would not secure a better life for future generations.

But I remain optimistic. We may not get a deal on climate change in Paris in 2015, but there is a groundswell of passionate staff and student leaders in universities across the UK and the world who can and should make demands of their institutions to be at the forefront of change.


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