Sustainability Leadership Programs: Emerging Goals, Methods & Best Practices

June 2013

By Mike Shriberg and Lindsey MacDonald

Colleges and universities are rushing to respond to an increasingly urgent challenge: developing the next generation of sustainability leaders.  Although diverse in program design, teaching methodologies, assumptions, and skills taught, sustainability leadership programs, with experiential education as a core methodology, are rapidly emerging.  This study – the first comprehensive attempt to analyze this phenomenon –explores three primary questions via interviews with 20 program directors and analysis of 50 programs’ materials:

  1. What program designs and teaching strategies are sustainability leadership programs utilizing?
  2. What principles and assumptions underlie these training methodologies?
  3. What are the key requisite skills for sustainability leadership development?

The analysis reveals that programs currently focus on network-building, systems thinking and project-based learning.  Program leaders define sustainability broadly, with an emphasis on social justice.  They focus on communication and engagement in defining leadership.  Challenges in program design include the tradeoffs of breadth versus depth as well as tradeoffs in training in specific skills versus analytical methods.  Programs tend to either focus on leadership with sustainability as one application or sustainability education with leadership as a subtext.  Consistent across programs is the emphasis on peer-to-peer learning.  Best practices for program design include employing experiential learning, integrating disciplines, moving beyond sustainability knowledge, building community, expanding the boundaries of transformational leadership, change agent training, and acquiring specific skills.  While the growth of sustainability leadership programs appears slated to continue in the near-term, the lack of effective assessment limits the ability to demonstrate success and may be a barrier to future growth.