Professor Marcia Devlin, an award-winning Australian leader, psychologist, university professor and senior executive comments in response to the current LeaderShape Global series of White Papers on leadership.
SUSTAINABLE LEADERSHIP comprises leadership and surrounding systems that create enduring value for all of those affected. Improvements are deep, wide and long-lasting. Focusing beyond quick fixes and temporary gains, sustainable leadership strives for permanent, positive, meaningful change. These may take longer to achieve, but their impact will be more profound.
My observations of successful sustainable leadership in Australia include those of a primary school principal in the government sector, for more than a decade. He knew how to grow the resources of the school to ensure there was more ‘in the pot’ from which a larger number of students could benefit. As well as building excellent physical facilities, he used these resources to attract talented teachers to ensure educational standards were consistently high. While encouraging strong student performance on standardised tests, he also emphasised student opportunities to engage in community and health initiatives, among others, and to enjoy their time at school.
He stayed in his role part-time, long beyond when he might have retired, to continue to build the capacity of teacher leaders and up-and-coming school leaders who he mentored both at his own school and at other schools. This is a classic marker of a leader who understands that what happens after they leave is as important as what happens when they are there. Over the many years I observed him, this principal developed others and was careful not to deplete them.
Like all sustainable leaders, he had a guiding philosophy that was other-focused, not self-focused. (NB What LeaderShape calls Transpersonal, or beyond the ego.) His ultimate objective was to ensure outstanding education and school experiences for the maximum number of students over the longest period of time possible, including after he left his formal, full-time role as principal.
This idea embodies a number of features that ensure success in the unique Australian culture. One of these features is informality in interactions between leaders and those they lead. Australian leaders generally do not stand on pomp and ceremony and if they try to, they can quickly lose the respect of those they are leading. Being ‘down to earth’ is an important quality to have to be effective as a leader in Australia. Without informality and the approachability that comes with that, it is hard to achieve ‘buy-in’ to your philosophy or objectives as a leader and therefore, to have a key pillar of sustainable leadership in place.
Another of the Australian features of sustainable leadership is egalitarianism or as we call it here, giving people ‘a fair go’. I believe that this concept is deeply ingrained in the Australian psyche. Australian leaders who are exclusive, rather than inclusive, can easily create discomfort and distrust among those they lead. And to be sustainable, a leader must have values that align with those they lead so that their vision is embraced, embedded and sustained, including beyond their tenure.