Sustainable Leadership Guidelines

Read the Sustainable Leadership Guidelines!

There is urgency in shifting the current paradigm and reinvent the way we conceive both policies and the purpose of organisations in the light of the pressing environmental, but also social and economic challenges we are currently facing. Therefore, the Sustainable Leadership Guidelines provide innovative and practical advice to managers for transforming thought patterns, behaviours and processes in companies and beyond.

The three intertwined dimensions of sustainable development offer useful insights to businesses on what to change. They are helpful to understand the different impacts of production and consumption patterns. However, it is crucial to make sense of them at individual level: as a manager, as a worker or as a citizen. Furthermore, the question of “what impact” (on the environment etc.) is closely tied to the procedural “how” of achieving change (company structures and processes). For these reasons, personal and procedural sustainability add to the classical dimensions of economy, society and environment.

You can read the complete version by clicking on the link to the PDF (right) or consult the short version (without the principles) below.


In an increasingly complex and interconnected world, where change is the norm and orientation becomes more and more important, we need competent managers and leaders able to structure and create a shared meaning of the current developments. Only then can large-scale changes of economic, social and environmental nature take place.
CEC European Managers and its member organisations have a long experience in good governance, professional management and quality leadership. As a European social partner, CEC adds to its institutional function concrete managerial practices. Combining these elements is essential for driving sustainable change. More than ever, it is necessary to think the individual, organisational and societal development together to achieve results. The multidimensional challenges of digitalisation, climate change and growing inequalities affect all sectors, private and public ones alike. Due to their role and competences, managers need to act as networkers for ideas, people and processes.

The present guidelines for sustainable leadership identify key principles and skills for professionals, managers and executives in order to assume their function as bridge builders, facilitators and actors for sustainable development.

Today, 93% of CEOs recognise that sustainability should be integrated into their company’s strategy. However, only few companies have a unified sustainability strategy and even fewer have followed-up with actions, according to a McKinsey survey. These results underline the need to integrate sustainability into the corporate and administrative world at all hierarchical levels - managers have a leveraging function in this respect. Understanding the own role in the workplace, society and political sphere is a precondition to achieving meaningful impacts.

Sustainable business practices can enhance companies’ long-term value through improved brand reputation, cost savings from resource efficiency, and revenue generation potential from new markets and products. Mounting evidence suggests that firms investing in (material) sustainability tend also to outperform other companies on traditional measures of performance.     

Looking beyond companies themselves, better incentives are needed to shift towards a stakeholder model suiting long-term needs of all actors involved and not only the short-term interests of shareholders. We need a new company model focussing on the long term and an understanding of companies’ role as an integral part of society. A model in which they tackle social and environmental challenges endangering social stability. At last, knowledge about sustainable (business) practices is of primordial importance in public administration - for business support, for steering education and for creating strategic pathways.

Sustainability dimensions

When speaking about sustainability, three dimensions are most often identified and also covered by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): the economy, the society and the environment. These goals have been adopted in 2015 by the 193 member states. They comprise 17 goals with associated 169 targets to be reached until 2030. Some have called them “the closest thing the Earth has to a strategy.” The sustainability dimensions are intertwined and cover long-term challenges requiring action today.

Businesses in particular have a fundamental role in delivering on the SDGs, including by creating jobs, innovating new technologies, and a better use of resources like energy and water. This responsibility is also reflected in the 10 principles of the United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest initiative on corporate responsibility. The latter constitute a useful tool for businesses on how to achieve the SGDs. As regards managers, each dimension of sustainable leadership identified in these guidelines is linked to various Sustainable Development Goals. The present document helps individual managers to see the connections among them and raises awareness on their existence.

The three dimensions mentioned are helpful to understand the different impacts of production and consumption patterns, but it is also important to make sense of them at individual level to drive change. Lastly, the question of “what impact” (on the environment etc.) is closely tied to the procedural “how” of achieving change. For these reasons, personal and procedural sustainability add to the classical dimensions of economy, society and environment in the present guidelines. Each dimension of sustainable leadership can contribute to attain to the Sustainable Development Goals, as indicated earlier.

Social sustainability

Workplaces contribute to the social fabric of our societies in multiple ways. First and foremost, private companies are paying taxes and social contributions, allowing for a redistributive welfare state to function. Second, workplaces in the private or public sector can improve well-being of employees and the broader social environment by offering decent working conditions and taking part in the social and cultural life of their community. At global scale, private companies bear a particular responsibility when it comes to ensuring good governance principles, including the fight against corruption, avoiding political mingling and paying due diligence for respecting human and workers’ rights, including the freedom of association and trade union membership. Concretely, managers can act as social role models, community builders and source of inspiration.    

Economic sustainability

Maintaining or improving life quality is one of the main functions of the economic system. Using the GDP as the (only) indicator for life quality has proven to insufficiently account to per capita well-being. The quality of the social and natural environment, technological progress, as well as adequate infrastructure also contribute to improve citizens’ life quality. The social market economy must ensure both redistribution and wealth generation. As far as companies are concerned, a sound economic foundation is needed to pursue their strategic ambitions in terms of social and environmental sustainability. Besides retrospective financial measures, such as profits and assets, it is essential to consider potential future performance and the embeddedness in the economic and political environment, potentially affecting the prospective economic health of the company. The new challenge for companies is to create sustainable economic value, able to overcome the short-term logic of « profits first. »

Environmental sustainability

Decreasing biodiversity, global warming and the depletion of natural resources are putting nature’s resilience under pressure, threatening life on the planet. Due to the fact that externalities are often not accounted for, planetary boundaries have been pushed to their limits. The degradation of the natural environment is an alarming signal calling for changing production and consumption patterns. Companies, households and public authorities share the task of reducing their carbon footprint, the production of waste and impact on habitats. Managers have a key role in going individually ahead and convincing their organisation to adopt sustainable action at all levels: from personal consumption and mobility patterns to the company’s environmental footprint.

Procedural sustainability

Rather than understanding sustainability as a milestone to achieve, it can better be pictured as a continuous path of improvement over the long term, inherent to quality leadership. As the challenges are intertwined, action is needed simultaneously on multiple fronts. Behaviours and thought patterns have to evolve, both at individual and collective level. It goes without saying that not all actors have the same starting position. Industrial producers for instance face quite different challenges than the service sector. The shared, but differentiated responsibility requires to make an own assessment of the starting point to understand which stakeholders are involved and affected and to identify the necessary pathways, objectives and partnerships. The following principles can help to give orientation in the process of becoming more sustainable.

Personal sustainability

Change towards more sustainable practices starts with individual action. Due to their position and influence, managers have a particular responsibility in leading by example. Cultivating a sustainable mind-set and following suit with concrete action that is more in line with the natural and social environment is a personal journey and part of the leadership culture to be promoted. The development of a corresponding set of leadership skills within companies and public administration can help to disseminate sustainable thinking and practice.

Please find the full version of the Sustainable Leadership Guidelines here

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