The future of leadership development

In the first of a brand new, eight-part sustainability series from Ashridge Business School, course co-Director Chris Nichols explains the importance of leadership education to create sustainable strategic action.

Just recently, I was invited to a summit with the executive group of a FTSE 100 FMCG company. The topic was ‘the future of leadership development’. It was a fascinating, if sobering, experience for someone who runs an MSc in Sustainability and Responsibility.

There was plenty of talk of human dynamics, systems and complexity; a rich seam around mindfulness, online and blended learning. But there was scarcely a word about the role in leadership of any awareness of the earth community beyond customers and investors.

Opportunity knocks

Bear this in mind: this company places the word ‘sustainable’ as a strap-line in their strategy map. But when it came to a discussion about what our leaders should be aware of, and the kind of leaders we want, the central issues were around supporting ‘sustainable profits’ in the sense of holding onto share and margin, not about ‘sustainable business’ of doing this within planetary boundaries.

At the heart of this summit was a deep assumption about ‘business as usual’, with sustainable business being somewhere between a constraint and a nice-to-have. There was little sense of grasping the urgency and the opportunity that the deeper sustainability agenda presents.

My contribution was to offer some ideas on a deeper curriculum – we need leadership development that goes well outside the borders of the traditional executive education arena.

On my list would be: –


  • Planetary boundaries and the work of the Stockholm Resilience Centre

The time where leaders can be ignorant of science, or set their scientific curiosity aside, has gone. Over a prolonged period, Johan Rockstrom and his team have led an international collaboration to calculate the ‘safe operating space’ for humanity.

Some awareness of Earth Systems Science is crucial now as a leadership competency – it’s no good paying lip-service to ‘systems thinking’ if your conversations are blind to the planetary systems within which every business action sits.


  • Attention to language and framing

So much of our business language carries a destructive cultural heritage based on centuries of the rationalist-mechanical metaphor. Even where we seek to do the right thing, often our language is too small for the job.

We need to pay attention to how we use language to construct our world, because the innovations we seeks often come from changing the language and allowing new patterns to arise. Leaders need to be language and image aware: words and framings make worlds.


  • A radical awakening to curiosity

Not just curiosity about knowledge but about ways of knowing. This links to the point about language. The cultural baggage of our Newtonian-Cartesian world marginalises other ways of seeing and knowing. We save our emotional awareness for home, and our artistic awareness for the theatre or gallery.

We need to access the fullest breadth of our humanity in our leadership and in our organisation: the ways of working and being that we need will not come from too small a way of seeing. Let all of us as leaders become more present and alive in our curious about richer and wider sources of data and insight.


  • A hunger for experimentation and learning from action

Above all, we need to learn how to learn, and to make learning more central and more social. We all need to be leaders in constant learning; not just ‘expert learning’ but genuine and rigorous learning from experience.

Learning to pay good-quality attention to our actions and their outcomes, and to frame new experiments and learn from them, will be part of the necessary skills for creating a viable and resilient future. The core practices of action inquiry will become ever more essential in organisational life.

There’s much more of course. But these themes are towards the top of my observations for what features too rarely on the leadership development agenda and where investment might fruitfully be focused.

Chris Nichols is a business director at Ashridge, where he is co-director of the Ashridge Masters in Sustainability and Responsibility programme and deputy director of The Leadership Experience.

edie has partnered with Ashridge Business School for this series of articles focused on growing international debate and practice around sustainability. The next part is titled ‘Towards earth-smart economics’, exploring what’s wrong with economics as usual and what can be done about it.

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