Talking Sustainability:
the key to effectively dealing with sustainability issues

by Dr Lionel Boxer CD PhD MBA BTech(IE)

Sustainability is increasingly confronting people in all segments of society. Corporate leaders are beginning to realise that their behaviour is under the scrutiny of ordinary people, politicians are noticing that their constituents expect elected officials to reflect sustainable ideals, and small business operators are finding that many of their practices violate new regulations. The proliferation of university sustainability programs and product advertisements relying on a sustainability message is a reflection of its increasing profile.

Despite the urgency surrounding this issue many leaders find resolution of sustainability issues to be fraught with obstacles. A possible cause of this difficulty has been identified through research conducted within the Centre for Management Quality Research at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. It has been shown that CEOs known for their effectiveness in dealing with sustainability issues have done so by addressing the culture of their organisations. These CEOs have been observed realigning their cultures with the sustainability issues confronting them.

To explain the way CEOs align their culture, culture was shown to be composed of four components: (1) rights, (2) duties, (3) moral order, and (4) actions. It appears that leaders change the mood of their culture by adjusting these four components in a similar way as a surveyor levels a theodolite before taking readings. They do this by talking with people.

In these terms, leaders dealing with sustainability issues initially seek out people who perceive they have a right to avoid behaving appropriately. That is, they confront those people discovered to be obstructing efforts to deal with sustainability issues. The right to obstruct efforts is questioned and identified as unsuitable behaviour.

Leaders who effectively deal with sustainability issues clearly establish defined duties for people to follow. Furthermore, they enforce the adherence to these rules.

The rights and duties that people perceive – in part – establish a local moral order that guides people. By expressing new ideas through conversation, leaders can alter that local moral order. Each organisation faces unique sustainability issues, which need to be understood in terms of the organisation. Dealing appropriately with these sustainability issues require leaders to understand, articulate and promulgate the moral order throughout the organisation to define a sense of right and wrong. Their actions then reinforce that message.

Leaders throughout an organisation need to realise that their actions become a model for their subordinates. It is essential that leaders be aware of how their actions are interpreted by others and carefully plan their behaviour so that it reinforces the rights, duties and moral order required to appropriately deal with sustainability issues. Furthermore, they need to impose a regime on their subordinate leaders to cascade their example through subordinate leadership throughout the organisation.

It has become clear that rights, duties, moral order and actions are interdependent components of the underlying mood of a culture. Taking contextual differences into account, Effective leaders have been observed aligning this mood through the careful adjustment of this mutually supporting mechanism. That is, leaders in practice do not refer to rights, duties, moral order and actions as such, but use language commonly used in their organisations.

Effectiveness in dealing with sustainability issues has been coined as the sustainable way and this path to sustainability is explained in The Sustainable Way. Rather than reporting the research in a textbook, the findings have been incorporated into a short novel. Here a CEO is seen confronted by a sudden sustainability issue. Through the course of a day, the CEO learns about realigning organisational mood in a way to support the resolution of the sustainability issue. At several points the CEO’s sustainability-aware daughter reflects on the situation and contributes another level of understanding.

While complacency is an option, leaders are realising the need to take steps to behave in a sustainable way. They know that survival is not compulsory and are increasingly speaking with their staff about sustainability. However, their ambitions to be sustainable will be confounded by people within their organisations unless steps are taken to align the underlying mood. The challenge is to speak about the right things in the right way. The Sustainable Way clearly and concisely explains how to achieve this realignment and what to talk about. You can read more about The Sustainable Way at

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