Sustainability leadership in 2023: 3 traits to embody

Last updated: 19th May 2023

Marking Business Leadership Month and off the back of his appearance on the edie’s Sustainability Uncovered podcast, David Willock, managing director, head of ESG Finance & structuring discusses what traits make a leader with Francesca Sharp, lead propositions & partnerships, sustainability & ESG Finance, both from Lloyds Bank.


Sustainability is complex and full of interconnectivity, there is no escaping this. As we move urgently past the era of commitments towards action and delivery, we sustainability professionals must stand ready and willing to unpick that complexity.

As translators, sustainability leaders can exist and influence at the intersection of sustainability, technology, business, and finance. This skillset will be just as critical as technical expertise.

For example, increasingly sustainability strategies will be delivered by new technology. Technology x sustainability = a layering of complexity. The end user of that solution may be neither a technologist or a sustainability specialist. Leaders who can translate the absolute societal or environmental imperative of what is required here in a constructive but compelling way are absolutely essential to make sure business stays the course.

Sustainability leaders know enough about a broad range of areas but must continue to challenge all involved to de-clutter the language to support the ultimate goal of encouraging all actors to take deeper and more meaningful action.

Talking the language of business to help it stay the course

The other side of translation is ensuring sustainability professionals are talking the language of business. Leaders need to be immersed in:

  • How sectors, businesses and teams make money;
  • What their Key Performance Indicators are;
  • What their peers are doing (because business is innately competitive);
  • Who their key clients are; and
  • Who their key suppliers are and where.

The international economic and geo-political climate is putting pressure on individuals, companies, countries and their ability to deliver the commitments they have made, any further ambitions and perhaps more crucially taking significant near-term action.

We experienced a steep acceleration of sustainability and ESG in the minds and agenda of C-Suites from 2019 to 2021. The annual Davos World Economic Forum risk report shows this isn’t going away, however in tightening economic conditions and volatile politic environments, it will afford more opportunity to reduce ambition.

To counter this sustainability leaders must embrace an obsession with how business works. This obsession will then make staying the course much easier, as sustainability ambition can be framed and aligned within that language of business.

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations provides a good reminder here “it’s not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”

If we can frame sustainability consistently in the context of the business case, then it will place us well to “stay the course”.

Personal resilience – running a marathon and a sprint

Sustainability people are passionate, they are hopeful, they are energetic. At the same time, they are sad, they feel doomed, and they are burned out.

Sustainability Leaders need to be super intune with the complex web of feelings, emotions that both they and their team will face.

This is both a marathon and a sprint, we need to be in it for the long run and accelerate immediate action.

You don’t get many sprinters that run marathons and vice versa – yet we are asking sustainability professionals to do this.

So our final trait for sustainability leaders is to have a clear approach to addressing their own wellbeing and protecting the wellbeing of their teams as this is an area of heightened risk in our view.

Authored by:

David Willock, Managing Director, Head of ESG Finance & Structuring, Corporate & Institutional Banking, Lloyds Bank

Francesca Sharp, Lead Propositions & Partnerships, Sustainability & ESG Finance, Corporate & Institutional Coverage, Lloyds Bank


Please listen to edie’s Sustainability Uncovered Podcast episode 5, where David dives into this subject matter in more detail. It’s a great listen. Sustainability Uncovered Podcast episode 5: Climate solutionists, translating ESG and workplace wellbeing.

N.B. The information contained in this entry is provided by the above supplier, and does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie