School of thought: Can the next generation of leaders steer change in a turbulent future?

28th November 2023


How can the next generation of leaders steer sustainable change in a turbulent future?

The rapidly changing landscape of the 21st century – characterised by accelerating climate change and global ecosystem isruption – represents a fundamentally new set of conditions in which leaders must steer sustainable change. This cascading set of interacting risks has been termed a global polycrisis. As we confront an urgent need to transform economic systems, food production, transportation and energy consumption to align with our planet’s limits, a central question emerges: how can emerging sustainability leaders enable profound change in the face of unprecedented complexity and uncertainty?

IEMA university partner, the University of Nottingham, developed the MSc in Environmental Leadership and Management to prepare graduates to respond to this challenge. In spring 2023, students explored the knowledge and competencies essential for effective sustainability leadership in the 21st century through targeted conversations with IEMA members. The project aimed to investigate environmental practitioners’ mental models of the future, the challenges they encounter while navigating change in uncertain times and the competencies essential for effective leadership in 2040.

The students interviewed 18 IEMA members from diverse contexts on threats, opportunities and challenges
to sustainability, as well as a horizon scan of future leadership skills that will be required to deliver change. Analysis of the interviews as a class revealed what IEMA members consider to be important for effecting change and areas that the environmental sustainability sector needs to explore further.

Interviewees sought change in a variety of areas, including policy implementation, sustainable business practices, education, collaboration and communication. Most expressed deep concern about the planet’s future and all agreed on the importance of action, yet many believed that the pace of change will be complex, unpredictable and non-linear in the future.

Conversations covered the personal qualities, leadership skills and professional skills needed by future leaders. Positivity, collaboration and communication were seen as the most essential traits. However, technical green skills are not sufficient to meet the scale and complexity of future environmental challenges – collective transformative change will require the ability to connect with one another at a human level and motivate collaborative action.

The skills, qualities and competencies identified by interviewees resonate with established frameworks such as Unesco’s Competencies in Education for Sustainable Development and IEMA’s Sustainability Skills Map, which covers areas such as analytical and systems thinking, communication, collaboration and self-awareness.


Despite respondents’ realisation of the likelihood of a turbulent future, there was limited recognition of how such future realities may change the conditions of environmental practice or how cascading impacts of climate change may influence the environmental sector. Conversations remained focused on driving change in the current economic, social and political climate.

This project revealed the value of exploring future environmental imaginations among sustainability professionals to cultivate anticipatory thinking. It would enable the environmental sector to be on the front foot as the impacts of climate and environmental change accelerate.

Environmental organisations can also help practitioners to be more explicit about the mental models of change that link individual roles with broader social and environmental transformation. We suggest identifying how public, private and third sectors might interact and accelerate ambition for sustainability through the lens of systems change.

Lastly, professional bodies such as IEMA are increasingly important for cultivating the skills, competencies and qualities needed for future environmental change.

Subscribe

Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.


Transform articles

Weather damage insurance claims hit record high

Weather-related damage to homes and businesses saw insurance claims hit a record high in the UK last year following a succession of storms.

18th April 2024

Read more

The Scottish government has today conceded that its goal to reduce carbon emissions by 75% by 2030 is now “out of reach” following analysis by the Climate Change Committee (CCC).

18th April 2024

Read more

The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) has issued a statement clarifying that no changes have been made to its stance on offsetting scope 3 emissions following a backlash.

16th April 2024

Read more

While there is no silver bullet for tackling climate change and social injustice, there is one controversial solution: the abolition of the super-rich. Chris Seekings explains more

4th April 2024

Read more

One of the world’s most influential management thinkers, Andrew Winston sees many reasons for hope as pessimism looms large in sustainability. Huw Morris reports

4th April 2024

Read more

Vanessa Champion reveals how biophilic design can help you meet your environmental, social and governance goals

4th April 2024

Read more

Alex Veitch from the British Chambers of Commerce and IEMA’s Ben Goodwin discuss with Chris Seekings how to unlock the potential of UK businesses

4th April 2024

Read more

Regulatory gaps between the EU and UK are beginning to appear, warns Neil Howe in this edition’s environmental legislation round-up

4th April 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close