Reflections of a CSLian

They say you can’t unlearn something, even if you want to. Quite simply, our brains are physically incapable of unlearning. And that’s why, once you’ve learned how quickly we need to end our energy-intensive existence, there’s no turning back.

This is the challenge put before you during the Centre for Sustainability Leadership’s seven-month fellowship program. Seven months of learning how you can influence, lead and help move our society, species and planet into a future that doesn’t rob future generations of resources and leaves our environment worse than how we found it.

And now that I’ve been undergone the fellowship and graduated as a ‘leader of sustainability,’ I’m finding the title somewhat discomforting. I know that I’m supposed to be leading others on the path of sustainability, that the program’s talented facilitators have seen the ingredients in all of us that adds to a sustainability recipe of the future. I’ve now learned that I also bear this urgent responsibility as a member of my community and society, and there’s no running away from that.

It’s not that I haven’t created change before. I’ve been fortunate to pioneer some world-changing work in Bangladesh, and yes, I’ve shown great passion in my life’s pursuits. So perhaps, I’ve demonstrated something that resembles leadership. But leadership, especially of sustainability, is a whole different ball game.

On one hand, it’s the notion of even considering oneself a leader. It’s the acceptance and execution of tremendous power and influence over others that goes along with that role. It’s the battle to have earned that leadership, to deserve the respect that goes along with it, and it’s the integrity one needs to fill the needs of a society’s big shoes, especially in an environment where our current leaders are sometimes revered but more often completely ridiculed from one day to the next. How does anyone deal with the circus and the news cycle that surrounds leadership today? How does anyone maintain a sense of sanity?

On the other hand, it’s also the uptake of incredible responsibility attached to sustainability: nothing less than the well-being of our society and the future health of our planet. It’s the stark realisation that we, as a species, are headed towards a perfect storm. Worse yet, many of us know that our current world economic model seems founded on the Earth’s supposedly infinite capacity to supply our needs, but that the nine billion souls who will occupy it in the next 30-40 years will stretch this capacity to the utter limit. Those equipped with this knowledge sadly seem to be in the minority. Like the titanic, the momentum towards disaster seems so strong that no one seems to be able to direct things in a direction that would avoid disaster.

What is an aspiring leader meant to do in the face of all this? It’s far easier to hide. To turn away from the heavy press of responsibility that surrounds leadership, especially towards a destination deemed ‘nonsensical’ by the those manning the rudders of our economic engines. It is simply easier to feign ignorance, profess helplessness, or to simply disengage, as much of our society has done.

This is where Centre for Sustainability Leadership’s fellowship program has stepped in. For the last year, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be surrounded and be mentored by individuals who, at their core, value a healthier, more holistic society, like I do. Passionate people like myself who know that without vigorous and thoughtful leadership, this situation isn’t going to turn around. I’ve learned that leadership truly begins from within, and that it is often our own self-imposed fears and limitations that prevent us from letting ourselves first envision, and then become responsible for, creating the world’s future. I’ve also learned that our definition of leadership is far too narrow. We often look to our leaders to be superhuman, to possess dozens of leadership qualities and to express each of them simultaneously. To expect so much from one person is simply unrealistic. Leadership is teamwork and collaboration. It’s impossible to cover all the aspects of leadership here.

Above all, my experience with the Centre for Sustainability Leadership has been the creation of my vision of leadership: my ideal leader possesses the skill of empowering those around them to action. S/he is abundant in that seemingly magical ability to instil, change or influence the values of the people around them towards an outcome that is better for everyone and for the planet, even when there is disagreement. And, as one of our facilitators quipped, s/he’s got fantastic hair to boot.

Right now, I sense a great drive to bring together dozens of different fields under the same tent, one where we are united behind a vision for a shared future. Where we see ourselves not just as mere consumers whose identity is derived by what we purchase, but we are, in fact, active co-creators of our future. The CSL helped instil a connection with this vision and an awareness that within each of us lies that capacity. I now believe it is our duty as leaders to inspire leadership within others. If we’re going to create that future, co-created world, we need to discover and live to our full potential as leaders.

I credit the CSL with sharpening my gifts and giving my vision clarity. As I begin to change the course of my life because of this knowledge, I am utterly excited by what is to come. Thank you, especially to Kate Harris and Sandi Middleton, for helping inspiring this vision in us.