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Sustainability leader competencies: A grounded theory study

Pamela Giardina Schwalb, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


The purpose of this critical qualitative study was to develop a theory of the competencies of a sustainability leader, grounded in research. A sustainability leader is generally described as an individual who creates profit for his/her stakeholders, while protecting the environment and improving the lives of those for whom he/she impacts as a result of his/her leadership. Nearly 60 individuals familiar with sustainability were asked to characterize an effective leader of a sustainability initiative or a sustainability organization. ^ The study revealed there is more than one way to be a sustainability leader—different paths can result in decisions and actions that synthesize the needs of and impacts to planet, people, and profit. An intention to integrate the imperatives of these three—a sense of purpose that transcends all of the behaviors and qualities of a sustainability leader—is an all-encompassing aspect of the theory. In addition, a sustainability leader possesses a systems-thinking style and exhibits positive psychological constructs, including: hope, courage, integrity, and servitude. It is at this point that the model diverges, based on the role the sustainability leader plays: advocate, process-responsible, or outcome-driven. The competencies—broken down among the dimensions of knowledge, skills, style, method, and mission-criticality—will vary, depending on the leader's role. This finding suggests that the generally adopted sustainability model of three, identical-sized circles representing planet, people, and profit does not accurately depict how a leader approaches an issue in need of sustainable consideration. Depending on the leader's role and other variables, the circles may not be of equal weighting—they may be predisposed to favor one or two of the pillars. The resulting model is multi-dimensional and complex.^

Subject Area

Business Administration, Management|Sustainability|Sociology, Organizational

Recommended Citation

Schwalb, Pamela Giardina, "Sustainability leader competencies: A grounded theory study" (2011). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3487070.