15 February 2018
The Essence of Leadership for Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals
Photo Credit: Lynn Wagner
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Innovative leadership and management will be essential for organizations in all sectors to integrate the SDGs into strategic plans and operational activities.

Leaders should not only bring people together and encourage creative participation, but should help people to embrace a relationship with uncertainty, chaos, and emergence.

At the UN Sustainable Development Summit on 25 September 2015, more than 150 world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the Global Goals, aim to end poverty, hunger and inequality, take action on climate change and the environment, improve access to health and education, build strong institutions and partnerships, and more.

The performance of any country, in seeking to achieve the SDGs, to a large extent depends on its leadership. Effective leadership translates into prudent public policy formulation and implementation, as well as good public service delivery, to meet the needs and aspirations of citizens. Achieving the SDGs will require the concerted efforts of governments, the business sector, society, and individual citizens. Innovative leadership and management will be essential for organizations in all sectors to integrate these sustainable development goals into strategic plans and operational activities in service of realizing the 2030 aspirations.

Leadership for achieving sustainable development is rooted in a living processes paradigm, rather than a mechanistic paradigm (Mckeown, 2002)). Complex living processes demonstrate sustainable properties and patterns and can suggest important strategies for leadership. Burns, Vaught, and Bauman (2015, 133) highlight that, “Qualities of living processes (how all life operates) include resiliency, adaptivity, awareness, creativity, and relationships.” Considering that our world is inherently paradoxical, that multiple realities exist, and that living beings organize and adapt according to their environments, leadership must be “adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient, learning, intelligent—attributes only found in living systems (Lai, 2011)”.

It well known that today’s challenges for attaining sustainable development are complicated, interconnected, and will need everyone to work towards creating a more sustainable future. Therefore leaders, rather than providing a solution, “create opportunities for people to come together and generate their own answers” (Cooper and Nirenberg, 2012). Leaders should not only bring people together and encourage creative participation, but should help people to embrace a relationship with uncertainty, chaos, and emergence. Working together to solve problems, even when values are shared, can be a difficult process. Leaders must understand that the tension, conflict and uncertainty that come from differences provide great potential for the creative emergence of viable solutions.

The world needs effective leadership for sustainable development and this leadership requires an inner process, in which a leader must first be grounded in an understanding of self and a relational view of the world, in order to effectively work with others to make change. In addition, reflection is a process of “understanding one’s own skills, knowledge and values within the context of community groups” (Nikezic, Puric, and Puric, 2012). This reflective process allows for feedback loops, and cycles of growth and change. Leadership should thus be understood as an inclusive, collaborative, and reflective process, rooted in values and ethics.

To achieve the SDGs, leadership at both the national and organizational levels would have to adopt leadership styles that engender a sense of shared responsibility toward the attainment of the Goals; one that is focused on the long-term, and thus would establish systems that persistently ensure the pursuance of this goal in the future; one that understands the need for collective effort (at both the national and organizational levels) toward the attainment of the SDGs; one that is willing to learn; and, finally, one that is in itself ethical, and thus would impress upon followers the need to behave in a like manner.

For attaining the SDGs, leaders must manage resources, be visionary and ethical, and focus on long-term goals without compromising values and principles. Moreover, leaders should be motivated by a vision to achieve the goals in the midst of changing environmental factors and involve all stakeholders in the governance process. Leadership reflects the characteristics of the transformational leadership style. The effects of this kind of leadership coupled with coordination and participation of all concerned would potentially lead to improvement in economic efficiency, social cohesion and environmental responsibility. These are the three basic indicators of sustainable development. The achievement of sustainable development is observed as a cyclical relationship with planning and implementation and monitoring of the strategies as key responsibilities of the leader. Finally, strong leadership, a coherent implementation plan and, engagement of all government departments and diverse stakeholders are necessary to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals are achieved at national and international levels.


Burns, H., Vaught, D., and Bauman, C. (2015). Leadership for Sustainability: Theoretical Foundations and Pedagogical Practices that Foster Change. International Journal of Leadership Studies, 9:1, 131-143.

Cooper, J.F. and Nirenberg, J. (2012) Leadership Effectiveness, Encyclopaedia of Leadership Edition, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Lai, A. (2011) Transformational-Transactional Leadership Theory. AHS Capstone Projects. Paper 17. https://www.scribd.com/document/235165418/Transformational-Transactional-Leadership-Theory (accessed 10 November 2017).

Mckeown, R. (2002) Progress has been made in education for sustainable development. Applied Environmental Education and Communication, 1:1, 21-23.

Nikezic, S., Puric, S. and Puric, J. (2012) Transactional and transformational leadership: development through changes. International Journal for Quality Research, 6:3, 285-296.

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