Leadership Lab | Sustainability, leadership and the future of education – An interview with Gary Kendall

We are thrilled to present our new Leadership Lab series, where we sit down with thought leaders, practitioners and policy influencers from around the globe that are impacting their communities and industries for a more sustainable, resilient future.

We are thrilled to present our new Leadership Lab series, where we sit down with thought leaders, practitioners and policy influencers from around the globe that are impacting their communities and industries for a more sustainable, resilient future.

To launch this exciting new series, we sat down with Dr Gary Kendall, a Strategy & Sustainability Specialist at Nedbank and an Advisor to Routes to Resilience. We chatted about the meaning of sustainability leadership and systems intelligence, inspiring leaders that are pioneering change, and how education can equip future generations for a resilient future

KELLY NOTCUTT (KN):  The words sustainability and leadership have become so overused that their meaning is becoming increasingly intangible. What do sustainability and leadership mean to you and are there ways we can better describe the qualities or the behaviours that we would like those words to elicit?

DR GARY KENDALL (GK):  Part of the problem is that there are different ways of thinking about sustainability.

For example, as an environmentalist, we might care about rhinos because they’re magnificent animals, and we would feel a little part of our humanity was destroyed if we lost a rhino. That would be a legitimate environmentalist position, but that’s not a sustainability view.  

An alternative view might be, well people travel from all over the world to see South Africa’s rhinos and if we lost the rhinos then we lose part of our natural capital, which is an asset that helps us generate an income.

Then there’s my preferred systems intelligence view, which asks, “What does it say about our model of development when a species like the rhino is on the verge of extinction? Are we actually behaving in a way that’s threatening to ourselves?”  We have indicator species that are falling off the extinction cliff and they are just the canary in the coal mine, a warning of increasing danger.

Sustainability [as distinct from environmentalism] is fundamentally an anthropocentric endeavour, which means that sustainability has human concerns at its heart.

Human civilisation is dependent on a healthy thriving natural world not just because we like to go out for walks in the forest but because we get most of what makes life possible from the natural world, including our entire food supply, energy, the air we breathe, the water we drink. So, that’s why we all need to care about the environment.  

Then we come to leadership. Leadership is not the same as management. It’s not something that is given to you by virtue of your position on an organisation chart. It comes through how you influence and inspire people around you to act, through your words and deeds. Authentic leadership involves inspiring people to act in ways that they would not have otherwise acted.  

KN:  Gary, you mentioned a leader is someone who’s influential; who inspires others to action.  Are other qualities are associated with leadership?

GK:  Probably the most important quality is humility. In the corporate sphere, we find people in positions that are really crying out for leadership. Often times, the way that organisations operate, individuals get promoted through an organisational hierarchy to what they think is now a leadership position but they’re not demonstrating leadership qualities like courage and humility. These kinds of behaviours and qualities seem to get beaten out of people as they progress through a system because showing courage, taking calculated risks, demonstrating humility, is seen as undesirable.

KN:  Are there any sustainability leaders that you think are really inspirational and are modeling these qualities?

GK:  Yes, Paul Polman [formerly] of Unilever. What inspires me about Polman is he seems to have such a clear understanding of the purpose of his enterprise and its place within society.

He once said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Look, if you’re an investor and you want quarterly earnings reports, I respect you as a human being but you can go and invest somewhere else because Unilever doesn’t want you as an investor”. You need to have the courage of your conviction to say, “It’s okay, we’re not just going to try and be all things to all people and end up being nothing to anyone. We know what we are; we know what we stand for, are you with us or not?”  That’s really rare in a corporate leader.

Another good example is someone like Elon Musk, because it shows that being a leader isn’t necessarily winning a popularity contest. There’s absolutely no question that he’s had a massive impact on the automotive sector.  

We often think of leadership as being the biggest, having the greatest market share or having the largest number of customers. But when you think about Tesla, it’s none of those things. It’s not the biggest; it doesn’t have the biggest market share; it’s not the most profitable; it doesn’t have the highest market cap but its unquestionably leading in the automotive sector. So, then you ask, “By what criteria is it leading?”. The answer is, “By the criteria that everyone else is following it.”

Perhaps a nice definition of leadership is that it inspires followership.

KN: Can you explain what you mean by systems intelligence?

GK:  I was searching for words that I can use to replace sustainability because that word is loaded with baggage.  So, I came up with systems intelligence.

Sustainability [properly understood] challenges you to lengthen your time horizon, to broaden your field of view and to deepen the quality of your thinking. This type of thinking will elevate your level of ambition, because you will have a more complete understanding of this complex adaptive system of which you are a stakeholder.  

If you extend your horizon of concern, you’ll notice that the decisions that you make in the short term may actually be undermining your future success, and if you make a longer-term decision it’s better [for you].

If you take a deeper view, by slowing down and thinking, you’ll generally make a better decision, more well-informed decision. I am sure you can give me examples really good decisions that were made completely in the moment without any thinking at all, but on the whole, it’s not a bad idea to stop and think more than we do.  

In our neo-liberal capitalist system, we increasingly make decisions based on short-term thinking. As we get more and more short-term in our thinking; we get narrower and narrower in our scope of understanding and the impacts we have on others, to the point where the quality of our thinking diminishes. We end up constantly reacting to what’s being thrown at us; we don’t think for very long before we act, and we only think about ourselves.  

Systems intelligence would be about making better quality decisions by thinking things through, thinking longer term so that we are not surprised by the future when something comes up.

Sustainability is really about unpacking and resolving the tension between short-term versus long term; and self-interest versus general interest.

KN: How do we encourage the schooling system to start to value that kind of intelligence?

GK:  I’m not an expert in this field, but I’ve got a couple of ideas. Firstly, there’s nothing worth doing for the next 50 years other than [working on] sustainable development.

Secondly, if you want to educate the next generation of participants in the socio-economic system, you want to prepare them for what is needed. With the world rapidly changing, we’re going to need to be adaptable and more resilient. Children will need to learn how to learn, how to be curious and how to question what they are presented with.

What seems to be different about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the way work is changing is that machines may replace cognitive abilities and not just manual abilities. Our cognitive capacity has always made humans different from machines. Which is where things get interesting. The more digital and artificial the economy becomes, the more we have to focus on what really matters between humans. Which are things like empathy and compassion, human qualities that have been scorned within the current economic system.