Who Will Lead Schools Toward Sustainability?

Who Will Lead Schools Toward Sustainability?

by Carolie Sly

who will lead schools to sustainability

During the 2009­–2010 school year, the Center for Ecoliteracy’s Leadership Academy is nurturing 28 smart and insightful leaders of the schooling for sustainability movement. At our second of four gatherings, we were inspired by Jacob Moody, executive director of the Bayview Hunters Point Foundation for Community Improvement, who reminded us all that leadership means knowing who you are and how to bring others along.  Through his gift for storytelling, Jacob shared his experiences of giving those he leads encouragement to take on responsibility, and even risk failure, in pursuit of their common vision.

We reflected on other leaders — famous and not-so-famous — whom we admire and identified some shared characteristics of powerful leaders:

1. Leaders are tenacious and not afraid to stand up for what they believe.

Our Leadership Academy members marvel at Mother Theresa’s unwavering dedication to living and working with the poorest in the harshest conditions. When talking about deepening their own resolve and courage, they reflected on how vital behind-the-scenes emotional support is to maintaining personal guts and conviction. Not everyone is born a saint.

2. Leaders are dedicated to their cause and their craft.

One Academy member writes about being inspired by the Beatles, who were a powerful example of boldly pursuing new avenues of creativity. The Beatles served as her role models at a pivotal time, when she grew from a teen to a young woman, contributing to her lifelong dedication to teaching, music, and quilting.

3. Leaders recognize the importance of cultivating relationships and connecting with others.

Maria Gunnoe, a 2009 winner of the Goldman Environmental Award, serves as an inspiration to those who seek to nurture a deep connection to place and community. Growing up in an Appalachian coal-mining community, Maria began volunteering with others to educate her community about the damaging effects of mining on the health of the community and the environment. Her leadership is prime evidence that we cannot lead alone. Leadership is a team sport.

4. Leaders exhibit a blend of idealism and realism.

As the U. S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton promotes a blend of idealism and realism when it comes to nuclear proliferation, global climate change, terrorism, and the advancement of developing nations. Her message resonates with many of our leaders of sustainability education. It’s a tricky dance to simultaneously focus on the journey and the destination.

5. Leaders have a sense of humor and optimism.

Although television comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rarely come up in a conversation about leadership, our Academy members commented on the influence they have on public opinion, especially among young adults. Smart, well-informed humor and an undercurrent of optimism have the ability to influence public opinion, as evidenced by lead politicians jockeying for guest time on these “fake news” shows.

6. Leaders apply a systems perspective to decision-making.

Many Academy members cite Barack Obama as a leader who sees today’s societal issues — like the economic crisis, global warming, and failures of our education system — as interconnected. While they note that some citizens complain that Obama has taken on too many causes simultaneously, he seems to be a guy who understands that "everything is connected to everything else."

Ours is a start-list of the attributes of effective leaders of sustainability education. Do you have something to add?




7 comments posted

Sustainable Leadership

Submitted by Global Patriot (not verified) on Sun, 2010-01-31 23:27.

We need leadership within the education process, as it's not enough to teach - direction, connection, questioning, balance - all come into play, and these are skills that students need to learn at a young age, along with humility and fearlessness.

Leadership ruminations

Submitted by Shane Snowdon (not verified) on Wed, 2010-01-27 19:54.

I think this is a great summary. I particularly appreciate the emphasis on tenacity and realism--I think these are often overlooked in favor of attributes that seem more glamorous. I tell my students all the time, in fact, that persistence is the sine qua non of effective activism--especially in long-term efforts.

But I think it's important not to interpret tenacity as meaning that one should hold onto leadership in perpetuity. Another mark of good leadership, I think, is knowing when changes in oneself and/or external circumstances call for another leader, with a different skillset. No leader has all the qualities necessary to provide good leadership in all circumstances!

Leadership ruminations

Submitted by carolie on Thu, 2010-01-28 16:24.


You are so right. None of us hold all the skills necessary to lead every group in every situation. That is why our Leadership Academy puts an emphasis on shared leadership. Thanks for your insightful thoughts.

who will lead schools toward sustainability?

Submitted by nicola talle (not verified) on Wed, 2010-01-27 19:24.

Carolie, your comments about leadership inspired me to think in new ways about all kinds of leadership. I loved reading about the incredibly varied role models people thought about. I find myself seeing leadership qualities in many more people and situations after reading what you had to say. Thank you so much for your thoughtful, dynamic work!

Who will lead schools toward sustainability?

Submitted by carolie on Thu, 2010-01-28 18:04.

Nicola: I appreciate your encouraging comments and hope you will share with us stories of innovative kinds of leaders as you run across them!

New leaders needed for "Copernican Shift" in consciousness

Submitted by Steven Earl Salmony (not verified) on Wed, 2010-01-27 14:09.

There are likely many ways to bring about a "Copernican Shift" in consciousness within the human community. Perhaps I can put one forward here.

The gigantic scale and skyrocketing growth of the human population on Earth appears to soon become patently unsustainable on a planet with size, composition, frangible ecology and finite resources of Earth. Open discussion of the rapidly increasing size of the overwhelming "human species colossus" as a clear and present danger to future human wellbeing and environmental health needs to occur sooner rather than later. With regard to so serious and imminent a threat to the future of life as we know it, the current, calamitous choice of many too many leaders today to act on the wish to deny subjective discomfort and avoid objective danger could lead to some sort of incomprehensibly catastrophic ecological disaster. Perhaps one way to engender a Copernican Shift in consciousness would be for leaders of the human community to be guided in their thought, speech and action by intellectual honesty, the best available science, moral courage and faith in God and, in so doing, choose to respond ably to dangerous circumstances through acknowledging, addressing and overcoming every human-induced global challenge.

New leaders needed for Copernican Shift in consciousness

Submitted by carolie on Thu, 2010-01-28 16:34.

Steven, Your comments are well-taken and echo much of the thoughtful work of Joanna Macy and our co-founder, Fritjof Capra.

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