Sustainable leadership – both employees and managers are well and achieve the set goals

Picture by Mabel Amber from Pixabay

This autumn I was deeply impressed reading about Hailuoto municipality, which has succeeded with falling short of its budget in 2020. They have succeeded with reducing sick leave days per person from 26 calendar days in 2018, to 19 in 2019 and, so far, six in 2020. Unlike many other municipalities, it does not lay off anyone because of the corona. According to their Mayor, Aki Heiskanen, the sick days decrease when the employee is well and management is fair (Miettinen, 2020).

Two weeks ago I moderated a panel discussion about ecosocial issues and innovative learning – what is the ecosocial power of change for civilization and the corona crisis, to which I invited the Mayor of Hailuoto municipality, Aki Heiskanen, to participate. In the panel discussion, also participated Maria Joutsenvirta, a researcher at Aalto University at the Sustainability in Business program, and Björn Wallén, chairperson at the Finnish Adult Education Association. Maria Joutsenvirta has a special interest in “New Economy – the new ways in which we set up businesses and organize economic activity to respond to the rapidly warming Earth, declining natural resources and increasing inequality between humans”. Björn Wallén sees global challenges on a broad front: climate, social polarization, and lack of respectful dialogue, as challenges also for adult education.

The panel discussion was at the final seminar of the non-formal adult education in Finland as change agent education, organized by Bildningsalliansen – non-formal adult education in Swedish in Finland and the Finnish Adult Education Association, financed by the Finnish National Agency for Education. The education focused on: for solving the challenges of a sustainable future, changes are needed in people’s worldview, innovative learning, and innovative learning communities. The eco-social approach to well-being is based on that ”without the well-functioning biosphere there can be no society and without a society there can be no societal functions, including an economy” (Salonen and Konkka, 2015).

As the first question, I asked the panelists to summarize:

a) What do you think is the best thing that has happened, in your work, regarding sustainable solutions and the role of education or civilization in it, during the corona crisis?

b) What has been the challenge in your work, for promoting sustainable solutions, during the corona pandemic?

c) What do you think is most important to promote, next, in terms of sustainable solutions and the role of education or civilization in it?

These questions are my favorite questions, which I am also applying in my work. I reflect weekly on what has been the best during the week, what could have made my week better, and what is most important to do next week. These questions I have originally developed after I listened to the blog of Sami Paju, about continuing improvements (Paju, 2020).

The panelists emphasized that the best that has happened is that our relationship with nature has developed due to that we have spent more time in nature. We have also supported each other in our communities; especially those who are in a weaker position than we are. We have learned to live more slowly. A wellbeing staff, an inviting community, is a sustainability activity, or in other words sustainable leadership. 

Things we ought to promote is to get better at discussing, together. Skills that ought to be developed are expert-skilled conversationalists and dialogue experts who would be able to make connections and see widely – to develop communication skills. It would also be important to get out of hierarchies, to treat each one with the same respect, to pull together. Let great things grow. Volunteering work could diversify. We ought to get even better at networking, within municipalities, locally and nationally. A change in culture and values from individualism to collectivism is needed. One great forum to open up the discussion in Finland is the upcoming municipal elections, in the spring of 2021 – to think global and act locally. Many adult education centers already have a tradition to organize panel discussions during elections, which are good places to raise key issues. 

One question from the audience was how we respond to those who believe that ecological and social progress can only happen if the economy grows. The panel thought that deepening cooperation is one key for finding new solutions and is not dependent on technology or money. The audience emphasized, among other things that ecological reconstruction also offers major new investment programs that create new jobs, both in industry and in the service and information sectors. So far, the circular economy is the only practical solution that has emerged. Even intangible growth is not detached from the consumption of energy, and other natural resources, as long as the economic system operates linearly. This is why the circular economy and renewable energy can be the solution. One of the audience highlighted that gross national product, GNP, and gross domestic product, GDP, sees as value only products and services. The education movement could criticize GDP and GNP as measures and demand, for example, the genuine progress indicator, GPI, which incorporates environmental and social factors, which are not measured by GDP and GNP. One participant stressed that when we succeed in defining the economy as an activity that enhances the common good, covering all fields of human activity rather than just the monetary economy, we are more likely to find solutions that lead to a genuine decoupling of the economy and environmental harm. 

The realization of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Agenda 2030, will depend greatly on the participation of the private sector. Overall, organizations are more and more expected to take responsibility for the ways their activities impact their customers and workers, the society, and the natural environment, which requires long-term thinking (Russell Reynolds Associates, 2015). Mc Cann and Holt (2010) have looked into different definitions and defined it as “sustainable leadership is concerned with creating current and future profits for an organization while improving the lives of all concerned.” If I compare that with the first definition for sustainable development: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WECD, 1987), I argue that we are talking about the same vision, that our future generations would have the same possibilities as we have had, which I will continue working for. 

How? My way to enhance sustainable leadership is to ask well thought out questions and listen. I remember when I had my first performance reviews with my co-workers I googled how to succeed with them and found an article that mentioned 20/80, meaning that you as a manager should have an objective to use a maximum of 20 % of the time, or in other words, give at least 80 % of the time for your co-worker. I think that this same principle can be applied further, for any discussion, to be able to ask the right question and listen to the answers. Some basic, good questions, are how are you doing and how can I help you?

Tove Holm, 7.12.2020


Mc Cann, J.T. and Holt, R.A., 2010. Defining sustainable leadership. International Journal of Sustainable Strategic Management, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp.204–210.

Miettinen, S., 2020, Onnellisten saari: Hailuoto sai pienillä muutoksilla sairauspoissaolot laskuun ja säästi 350 000 euroa. YLE uutiset.

Paju, S. 2020. Jatkuvan parantamisen rutiinit ja rituaalit. Blog for the Academy of Philosophy.

Russell Reynolds Associates, 2015. Sustainable leadership.

Salonen, A. O., & Konkka, J. (2015). An Ecosocial Approach to Well-Being: A Solution to the Wicked Problems in the Era of Anthropocene. Foro de Educación, 13(19), 19-34.

WECD (World Commission on Environment and Development), 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Published by toveholmconsulting

Founder of Tove Holm Consulting. I am a transdisciplinar facilitator for sustainable development. Passions: change leadership, education, Agenda2030, networking & the Baltic Sea. I am a public speaker & PhD.

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