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To Be a Sustainable Leader, You Need To Manage Your Scarcest Resources Better

Mercedes Martin and Liz Guthridge, Mercedes Martin and Company

What gets overlooked when leadership teams pursue the triple bottom line—economic, environmental, and social?

The third metric, social sustainability, time and time again.

Social sustainability has become the third rail of the triple bottom line, whether intentionally ignored or simply neglected. Granted, social sustainability isn’t easy. The challenges and opportunities related to social issues are vast, confusing, potentially time-consuming, and fraught with risk.

Social issues are people issues at their core—the ways individuals feel, think, and act on their own and interact with each other.

Leaders who are knowledgeable and accomplished about wide-ranging and complicated economic and environmental issues often express a different opinion about social issues.

When asked, leaders admit they’re fearful of offending people on social issues. Many leaders also worry that social concerns will conflict with their organization’s brand positioning or messaging. That could result in bad publicity and potentially hurt the reputation of the organization and the leader.

That’s what we heard from the almost two dozen senior leaders we interviewed across 16 industries in five countries last year. We explored how these leaders define, envision, and practice socially sustainable leadership. This was part of our Mercedes Martin & Company research study, Seen, Heard & Connected: Humanizing Social Sustainability, about how leaders build inclusive culture.

To supplement the interviews, we talked with other experts and conducted literature reviews. Almost all the leaders we talked to said that social issues make them uneasy and uncertain. Furthermore, most of the leaders in our study also conveyed a lack of confidence in their skill set around social sustainability.

Two interrelated factors get in the way of leaders’ ability to focus on and practice social sustainability. In turn, this hinders their ability to truly be sustainable leaders. (By the way, we define sustainable leaders as individuals who take responsibility for setting integrated strategies around social, environmental and financial performance and then ensuring the organization delivers results on a well-balanced triple bottom line.)

First of all, leaders—as well as leadership development professionals and executive coaches—are not paying enough attention to social sustainability, either on their own or as part of a formal professional development initiative.

And second, those who do participate in professional development find that the programs are lacking. The training curriculum and formats have not kept pace with the extreme degree and speed of change. For example, the professional development seldom takes into account new technologies, globalization, greater diversity in the workforce, and neuroscience findings of how adults learn.

As a result, leaders are often relying on yesterday’s solutions to deal with today’s dilemmas. And leaders say they feel they’re falling behind in today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world where road maps have become obsolete.

To navigate today’s VUCA world, you and other leaders need to forget about road maps.

Instead, take a different path. Look inside yourself, deliberately involve others, and seek out experiential learning.

For example, you need to free up space to think, reflect, and prepare on your own as well as with others about how to move forward. If you short-change this time for yourself, you and your team risk running in circles rather than setting an intentional course that all of you can follow and adapt as needed.

Regarding reflection, it’s vital for leaders, especially CEOs, to block off meaningful amounts of uninterrupted time alone. Dedicate time for self-reflection in addition to thinking about the business, industry trends, and environmental and societal changes.

When you make an effort to discover more about yourself, you can better connect with others. You’ll be able to channel their energy to your organization’s purpose and most pressing priorities. You’ll also be able to feel more empathy, as well as show it.

This commitment to self-reflection is one of three core aspects of sustainable leadership practices that emerged from the insights we gleaned from the leaders we interviewed.

The other two practices are strategic design and collaborative building. When combined together with self-reflection, leaders are better prepared to increase their focus and their actions not only to support sustainability, but also to humanize social sustainability. The combined focus also helps leaders enhance their clarity for how they involve others in a strategic and meaningful way and provide guidance.

All three of these practices—self-reflection, strategic design, and collaborative building—come together in our Humanity Labs, an opportunity for experiential learning. These labs directly respond to requests leaders made to us for a safe and brave space to develop their thinking and practices around social sustainability. In this protected environment, leaders and their teams can tackle dilemmas, experiment with options and move from analysis/paralysis to purposeful leadership.

These labs acknowledge that sustainable leaders need to manage two scarce resources much better—people’s time and energy, starting with their own.

When you show respect for people’s time and energy, you’re better positioned to create an organizational culture that’s inclusive and supports social sustainability. Then when you purposefully collaborate with others, the collective efforts everyone makes are grounded in trust, respect and transparency.

When people feel seen, heard and connected, they’re more engaged and willing to participate fully. That fuels social sustainability as well as contributes to economic and environmental sustainability for a well-balanced triple bottom line.

About the Authors

Mercedes Martin
Mercedes Martin & Company

A native of Havana, Cuba, Mercedes grew up in Miami and has worked all over the world. She’s a pioneer in global leadership and diversity. She believes in navigating uncharted waters by first examining basic core human needs: to be seen, be heard and to belong, and builds from there.


Liz Guthridge
Strategic Consultant
Mercedes Martin & Company

Liz and Mercedes met at a brain-based coaching program more than five years ago where Liz was helping facilitate the training while working on an Executive Master in NeuroLeadership. Liz is committed to helping leaders at all levels learn brain-friendly techniques to help them and their employees be seen, be heard and to belong and then to do well.   

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