High-impact Sustainability Leadership

Sustainability Leadership Course
Our course shared the knowledge and tools sustainability leaders need to drive down negative environmental and human health impacts across all sectors.


In our rapidly changing world, ensuring that our planet will continue to sustain our children and future generations is an all-hands-on-deck endeavor. The impacts of climate change are already upon us, and the gap between rich and poor is such that the richest eight people in the world now own the same wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion, according to a recent report from Oxfam. 
Sustainability Leadership Course
Sustainability Leaders work on a class exercise during the 2017 offering on Harvard's campus.

With these two dimensions in mind, Leith Sharp, Director of the Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership (EESL) program at the Center for Health and the Global Environment, convened her fifth intensive EESL course in mid-November. Over 70 sustainability leaders from the business, education, non-profit, and public sectors arrived on Harvard's campus to confront the challenge of making their organizations and communities sustainable for the long term. They left with tools that foster the rapid innovation essential to implementing change at the pace, scale, and depth needed to make a difference for current and future generations.

"This is our evolutionary test; we literally stand at a fork in the road," Sharp said during her opening remarks. "We were born into the century where humans will either evolve back into alignment with nature, or our planetary life support systems will evolve in response to our impacts, and then we'll be playing a very dangerous game of catch up."

Organizational Design as a Human Health Intervention

Sharp maintains that this crossroads requires us to forge a different kind of relationship with our planet, and to do it in a way that is equitable. If this sounds like a heavy lift, Sharp believes it is far from insurmountable. She holds faith that we can do it by streamlining how organizations foster innovative sustainability ideas from inception to implementation.

"Humankind is absurdly creative," Sharp said. "Think of the ways in which we can move information and energy through social agreements, and how we can work on ideas that span over centuries and continents, at every scale from the subatomic to the cosmic. How we set up our organizations greatly impacts how we tap our vast powers of human creativity."

That is why Sharp designed the EESL program as a 5-day intensive course that examines how we can transform organizational structures to address our most threatening environmental and global health challenges.

Sustainability as the Driver of Worker Engagement

Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace poll revealed that 67% of American workers are either not engaged at work, or are fully disengaged.

The EESL program teaches leaders to position sustainability as the driver of organizational engagement, innovation, and change. By creating effective processes for all employees to join in the protection of human and environmental health, leaders can rally workers from every corner to generate new ideas that can create significant positive impact.

Sustainability Leadership Course Exercise
Sustainability Leaders participate in a hands-on exercise.

To do this, we must radically increase the volume of innovative ideas conducive to improving life on our planet.

How much faster do we need to increase the pace? Sharp took a real-time poll of EESL’s 2017 cohort. Seventy-five percent said we need to at least quadruple our rate of innovation and implementation. 

But how do we do it?  To EESL attendees, this is where the magic begins.

Transforming Organizations by Charting ‘Idea Flow’

Sharp helps senior leaders achieve a radical increase in purpose-driven ideas by paying attention to the way ideas wend their way through an organization or community.

She has mapped the journey of over 1000 ideas by asking people to visually chart every move they made to take that idea from inception toward implementation. Sharp has unearthed patterns in journeys that experienced friction—when several attempts resulted in wasted time and effort—versus life cycles that experienced idea flow—when every move elevated the idea toward full implementation.

Sharp uses the idea-flow mapping process to determine which moves were dependent upon the more traditional and hierarchical command–control operating system (CCOS) of the organization, and which moves were dependent upon what she calls an adaptive operating system (AOS), an agile network-based system that stimulates shared purpose and non-hierarchical relationships.

Operating System Integration
The journey of a new idea is greatly enhanced when leaders can iterate between both the CCOS and the AOS, leveraging the strengths of each.

Sharp trains leaders how to implement idea flow within their organizations and communities by tapping into the synergy between both operating systems.

From Theory to Practice

At the heart of Sharp’s EESL program is a commitment to activating high-impact, applied leadership that improves human health and the global environment.

Zeyneb Magavi, a leader at Mothers Out Front—a grassroots organization working to ensure a liveable climate—attended one of Sharp’s sustainability leadership courses in 2016 and returned this year to share her success story.

Prior to the course, Mothers Out Front had tried for years to sound the alarm about roughly 16,000 natural gas leaks across Massachusetts. While these leaks don’t pose a safety risk, they do emit methane, which is a more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide. Magavi credits the class for preparing her to navigate a complex collaboration between Mothers Out Front, regulatory agencies, and utility companies to measure, rank, and repair methane gas leaks throughout the state.

“Working with Leith and engaging in the EESL curriculum gave my collaborators and I the tactics, framework, and confidence to engage enormously diverse individuals and organizations in solving a complex shared problem,” said Magavi. “For decades we've had this problem in our midst. Why did we succeed now? Because we had the right people, tools, and the right leadership approach. This enabled us to engage the entire stakeholder ecosystem in getting to work. This is powerful, it is replicable, and we are going to use it again and again to take on these large-scale, complex human health and climate challenges.”

The impact of this work has set the stage for a reduction of 5% of greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts within two years.

Next year’s EESL offering will take place on Harvard’s campus November 5-9, 2018.  Learn more here.

—By Marcy Franck, Communications Director, November 30, 2017


Photos by Skye Flanigan and Nicole Bellisle