Why leading on sustainability demands a high level of emotional intelligence

21 apr 2021

Why leading on sustainability demands a high level of emotional intelligence

As sustainability becomes a key corporate imperative, it sheds new light on the existing ideas about what makes a good leader.

IQ and EQ are now very familiar concepts in evaluating the potential and performance of leaders.

The latter identified that often outstanding leadership had nothing to do with cognitive abilities alone, but with emotional intelligence. It is an insight that has certainly maintained its relevance as the world has become more complex and disrupted, placing new demands on leaders.

What’s more, companies are becoming less concerned with their internal metrics around shareholder value add, but are now increasingly concerned with stakeholder value add, trying to make an impact in the world in a larger ecosystem with an external focus.

Sustainability leadership requires emotional intelligence

When it comes to sustainability, EQ certainly comes into its own. This is because the necessary transformation will take place more constructively when emotional intelligence is used for influence, inspiration, motivation and building relationships with followers.

And, whatever the industry, reaching carbon zero and meeting, for example, the UN sustainability goals, will require a transformation in the way business is done and organisations are led.

The leaders driving towards those goals have to be drivers for positive change, they need to be able to lead in such a way that inspires people to think and behave in responsible ways for sustainability.

They must have forward thinking plans and visions for sustaining the planet within which they operate, as well as social responsibility towards its people.

Defining a new role

As our recent report focusing on the chemical industry revealed, the role of sustainability in executive leadership is new and as yet undefined.

People in sustainability roles might well come from a myriad of backgrounds, including manufacturing, marketing, human resources and public relations. This provides an opportunity for companies, and the people stepping into the role, to shape its remit and influence.

But, whether they come from, a responsible leader needs to have certain qualities to make an impact. Firstly, a passion for the subject, balanced with the credibility that comes from knowledge.

They need to be honest and ethical, and have a strong sense of purpose that is inspiring to others. (You can already see why a high emotional intelligence quotient is so important.)

“They will also need to be creative, entrepreneurial and curious. They are leading into new territory, a whole new world, in fact. There are few stock ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions to be applied.”, says Jürgen van Zwoll, Partner at Odgers Berndtson Germany.

Not everyone enjoys transformative change. For many, it can be a threat.

So, critically, leaders will need to have the courage to take unpopular positions and point out unsustainable practices. To move on to solutions, means finding common ground. Using a common language is key to this. To successfully navigate hard discussions with the CFO, for example, you need to be using the same vocabulary.

Finance is the grammar of the company and sustainability needs to be linked to this language.

Sustainability transformation is a holistic process, so leading that change will require leaders to be highly adept at stakeholder management. They will be working with teams with different objectives and will need to instill a sense of importance and urgency for the sustainability mission throughout the organization.

At every stage, it is clear how important EQ is to the transformative leadership required to create a sustainable future.

Purpose attracts talent

A successful sustainability commitment and programme can be a strong draw for valuable talent. The new generation of executives is looking for a true connection to a company’s purpose. But this does mean that sustainability targets need to be genuine and deeply rooted. It needs to run through the corporate DNA, so to speak. The talent (and consumer) of the future demands it.

Clear targets for everyone

Going forward, recruitment criteria will need to change, with clear sustainability targets put in place for everyone from executive leadership to factory floor.

Although this varies across industries, sustainability officers have often been promoted from within their organization. They can combine deep industry knowledge with a personal passion for sustainability. Promoting from within for sustainability roles should not, however, be an afterthought, without a clear strategy for what to focus on or where to improve.

Bolting a sustainability portfolio onto someone’s current role is likely to be a less than ideal decision.

It’s only in recent years that senior sustainability roles have begun to be elevated into top leadership circles as companies realize its importance.
Companies without a clear sustainability role at a senior level will inevitably lose out to the competition in the coming years.

Marco Henry Neumueller, Associate Partner at Odgers Berndtson Germany adds: “There is clearly a need to build sustainability thinking into their corporate structure and hiring strategies, and hire leaders whose EQ allows them to make the inclusive leadership decisions that will open up a profitable and sustainable future.”

To discuss your sustainability leadership needs, or your own career, please get in touch. We will be happy to help.