How will we educate tomorrow's leaders?

Sensemaking / How will we educate tomorrow's leaders?

Sara Parkin reflects on 20 years of nurturing young leaders for sustainability

By Sara Parkin / 28 Jun 2016

This article was first published in The Long View 2016 chapter Network Futures. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016.

Twenty years ago, we welcomed our first ‘scholars’ to the Forum Leadership for Sustainable Development course. Since then, it has become a fully accredited master’s degree, with 238 graduates now working in increasingly influential roles.

As the current course ends in July 2016, a moment of reflection is appropriate. The master’s will be replaced by a set of global learning experiences that equip change agents to shift human activities onto a more sustainable trajectory, using system innovation. What can this new programme learn from our experience so far? 

The original idea was to help young people with leadership potential and a passion for sustainability to fast-track through all the stuff we Forum founder directors had to learn – often in the hardest of ways – over a couple of decades! 

For its time, the course was very innovative, mixing workbased experience with a broad programme of knowledge and skills development and a learning model built around reflection and group work. Scholars had a working placement in each of six sectors – NGO, local authority, national government, business, finance and regulation, and media – getting valuable and broad insights into how the ‘real’ world worked. Skills such as good communications, what is now called ‘entrepreneurship’, short-report writing, advocacy, team creating and so on are developed during the year, and gaps in knowledge plugged by learning from each other and from lectures in science, economics, sociology and ethics. (A quick bit of research revealed that these were the topics my generation of campaigners had to mug up on the most! Not, note, the environment, but learning about how people tick and why they do what they do.) 

The goal? To develop sustainability-literate graduates able to exercise leadership wherever they end up. Intentionally, my focus was on capabilities for ‘leadership’ that can be applied even when not in a formal ‘leader’ role. As one graduate put it, “I can actually get a lot done subversively, by presenting it as common sense rather than as anything new.” 

A favourite anecdote is of our graduates attending various government consultations or meetings: “We stopped saying we were graduates of Forum because often there was an embarrassing number of us in the room!” And, as one Forum watcher puts it, “Wherever there is a solution, I tend to find a Forum graduate somewhere nearby!”

Today, of course, more of our graduates are in formal ‘leader’ roles. Many in campaigning organisations, yes, but a large number are in social enterprises, often set up by themselves. The next-largest employer is conventional business, followed by government. Collectively, graduates operate a closed email circle called The Brain, where they use each other to resolve problems, share experience and, as they do so, grow n confidence – individually and as a group.

Consistently, it is gaining the confidence to ‘have a go’ in argument or practice that graduates say they value most from the course. They don’t suffer from what stops so many people from tackling unsustainable behaviour – the fear of not knowing enough, of not getting it right. Forum graduates do know enough to be sufficiently confident that their decisions and actions are more likely or not to be heading in the right direction. That is what defines sustainability-literate leadership. 

After the Paris climate change agreement, speed in shifting to more sustainable behaviours will be critical. So, the more sustainability-literate leaders in action the better. If the Forum’s new programme can multiply the number of people who have what it takes – especially the confidence to give it a go – I would be delighted.

Image credit: Poodar Chu / Unsplash

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