Leadership Education for Sustainability: Balancing Confidence and Humility

Leadership Education for Sustainability: Balancing Confidence and Humility

Contributed to the Spheres of Influence by Molly Gilligan. 

To view the original post, and to listen to the podcast of the discussion with Dr. Michael Shriberg, and Dr. Eban Goodstein, moderated by the Spheres of Influence founder Dr. Sarah Warren, please click here


As a Master’s student in Environmental Policy, I am entering the field at a time of great challenge and opportunity. In order to rise to this challenge, I will need strong leadership skills to tackle the urgent “wicked” problems we face. Along with technical competency in our varied fields, future leaders in sustainability must develop the skills to move communities in the direction of constructive change. How do future leaders develop these crucial leadership competencies?

This was the question addressed in the Fall 2014 Spheres of Influence Virtual Fireside Chat, moderated by Spheres’ Founder, Sarah Warren, PhD. Sarah Warren was joined by Michael Shriberg, PhD, the Education Director of the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan, and Eban Goodstein, PhD, the Director of Bard College Center for Environmental Policy (CEP) and Founder of Bard College MBA in Sustainability



Shriberg recently co-authored an article about his empirical research on best practices in programs designed to educate future sustainability leaders. Shriberg shared key sustainability leadership skills:

  • Communications skills— the ability to communicate effectively on thorny issues to diverse stakeholders
  • Systems intelligence—the capacity to work across multiple domains and analyze complex problems
  • Self-assessment and self-awareness—people who can both reflect on themselves and tell their own story
  • Balance of strong sense of confidence with a strong sense of humility
  • Ability to be a problem-solver

The skills necessary for leadership in sustainability differ from traditional leadership theory because, Shriberg asserted, we need “deeper levels of collaboration” and “a deeper stakeholder process.” Based on my experience of conventional leadership training, I would agree. Through my involvement in programs with titles such as “Leadership Options for Tomorrow,” I have developed many useful skills; yet this mold must be altered to meet challenges in the sustainability field where our best option is often to develop many solutions simultaneously while working collaboratively to promote innovation.

Both the Graham Institute and Bard CEP focus on similar pedagogical best practices in their programs: peer-to-peer learning, experiential learning, and systems thinking. The Graham Institute offers programs for first-year students to post-doctorate students, and extends out to staff and faculty. Bard CEP includes two programs: an MBA in Sustainability and an MS in Environmental Policy. Both include strong leadership components, said Goodstein, so that “[graduates] can step into leadership positions in a hurry and start to change the world, because there isn’t a lot of time.”

As a student in Bard CEP’s M.S. program, I appreciate the value placed on combining academics, real world experience, and leadership development. After one academic year of multi-disciplinary coursework and seven months of internship experiences in Washington, D.C., I am looking forward to utilizing my leadership skills and technical expertise to make a difference for communities disproportionately impacted by the deleterious effects of climate change.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *