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.


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