top of page

Sketching the Environmental Leader

By: Leena Badri, Maia Harris, and Moyukh Syeed

When we think of the term ‘environmental leader’, certain people that embody the title might come to mind. Most commonly, they’re environmental champions who have become household names, such as Greta Thunberg and David Suzuki. But what truly is environmental leadership? How can we define it, and how does it present itself to us? We consider these questions, shed light on the nuances that exist within them, and highlight key figures that inspire and exhibit the fundamentals of the climate movement and our outlined criteria.

What is most clear is that climate change and the overall pollution of our environment poses a significant risk not only to the well-being of our planet, but also to our way of life. The World Economic Forum states that environmental leadership will be in demand more than ever, especially since the COVID-19 outbreak has heightened the importance of a healthy and sustainable planet, forcing this issue to become the forefront of global concern.

But true universal progress requires the collaboration and coordination of environmental champions, in all their forms and practices, as their expertise and passion provides the framework for the global struggle for environmental justice.

They seek alternate ways of engaging with the environment, and possible avenues of justice-seeking and resistance. Their main goal becomes the preservation of our planet, and the inhabitants which suffer the most from its depletion and pollution. Ultimately, environmental leaders challenge our most closely held beliefs and perspectives, and also continue to have that conversation within themselves.

With purpose, undeterred motivation, and passion, anyone has the capacity of being an environmental leader. Still there are certain qualities that can be universally applied to characterize effective environmental leadership. While such traits are mutually beneficial and are in no way exhaustive, recognizing such qualities can provide a sense of direction for those who seek to develop skills that will produce impactful leadership.

Environmental leaders:

Are Transformational Leaders

Transformational leaders lead by example—”their style tends to use rapport, inspiration, or empathy to engage followers.” Through their own awareness and action, an environmental leader catalyzes and inspires collective change, ultimately energizing sustainable and long-lasting changes in societal thinking, actions, and lifestyles.

Recognize that Environmental and Social (in)justice are inextricably linked

“Sustainable growth demands affordable growth and inclusive growth – that is the bottom line.” -S. Narain

An environmental leader recognizes and fights for equitable environmental change and development, not disenfranchising certain communities and peoples in pursuit of environmental progress. They recognize that environmental harm has been borne most by black, indigenous and other racialized communities. Therefore, environmental leaders must recognize that environmental progress is undeniably connected to racial justice and the human rights of underserved peoples and communities.

Recognize that nobody is unequivocally ‘right’ or ‘correct’

Leaders must be confident and undeterred from achieving their long-term environmental goals. However, they must also accept mistakes and misjudgments with humility. The mission of an environmental leader is fundamentally centred on pursuing collective wellbeing. Therefore, they must be ecocentric, open-to-change, and self-transcendent, favouring what is necessary for the collective environmental pursuit.

Cultivate Empathy

Environmental leaders are fundamentally in pursuit of a greater good, the betterment of all humans and the non-human. What remains consistently integral to their work is empathy; to understand and recognize the needs of various peoples and collectives and develop a mission that seeks to consolidate differences, to embrace discourse and prioritize care.

Practice Resilience and Patience

Environmental leaders are in it for the long haul! They are pursuing a mission that necessitates widespread transformation. Transformation takes time and is subject to scrutiny. Therefore, it is necessary for a leader to remain resilient and patient throughout the process, staying resilient amidst challenges, and fostering patience in seeing returns and rewards from their hard work.

Are Champion Collaborators and Team-Players

Environmental justice is a collective mission, hence environmental leaders must recognize the collective effort required to achieve environmental progress. They must be able to collaborate with diverse people, recognize and be open to diverse opinions, and uphold a non-partisan approach to their work.

Challenge the ‘Status quo.’

An environmental leader questions, challenges, and subverts from established structures and institutions. They are curious and inquisitive about the systems that currently define local and global communities and are not afraid to go against the grain.

Finally, a leader and change-maker must work towards developing these qualities continually and with intention. After all, the most important reminder for any leader is to accept and embrace growth, change, imperfection and uncertainty as parts of their journey!

These ‘ideal’ qualities of environmental leadership may be a familiar soup of abstruse buzzwords – but what does it actually look like? How does leadership manifest in the real-world? Translating the esoteric sketch of an environmental leader into reality is not at all straightforward, but there are definitely some strains of advocacy that are recognizably environmental leadership. Conventional activities might look like:

  • Organizing a sit-in to protest at a pipeline;

  • Joining a campaign like GreenPAC’s Every Day Advocates;

  • Inspiring a collective to put pressure on a political body;

  • Maybe even fundraising for research on renewables or starting a re-education campaign on climate change.

There are also the ‘less-than-traditional’ approaches that can be broadly categorized under the name unconventional leadership. In their 2015 article “Unconventional Leadership,” Paul Marinescu and Sorin-George Toma define leadership as the ability to respond to unique challenges with tactical originality. The loose concept of unconventional environmental leadership can be rather slippery when brought down to our difficult, complicated reality. Part of the dilemma lies is that there is no singular way of engaging in nonconventional leadership. By its very nature, it is mutable and unpredictable as it responds to unforeseen crises. This brings us to the last quality of an environmental leader: adaptability.

Environmental leadership can be conventional and easy to spot, or unconventional and harder to recognize – but no matter the form, environmental leadership manifests in the face of real-time crisis. An environmental leader has the ability to adapt to new circumstances equitably and passionately; it is a “combination of rigor and creativity” for the sake of our shared environment (Marinescu & Toma). Any form of environmental leadership, like the climate crisis itself, rises to our universal and cross-cutting challenge of contemporaneity.

There is not a single magical solution for the environmental crisis, and similarly, there is not one way to act as an environmental leader. Instead, we herein proposed that environmental leadership is best described as a proclivity for converting a passion for sustainability into meaningful action, advocacy, and engaged awareness. These figures tend to be transformational, socially conscious, humble, empathetic, resilient, patient, collaborative and experimental. Having political environmental advocates is crucial, but alternate modes of organizing, resistance, and awareness are equally important and impactful. After all, all forms of advocacy are truly political.

When we think of environmental leadership, we think of the people that embody these values. We think of Suzuki, we think of Thunberg; we think of our neighbours, we think of our communities. So what environmental leadership means on paper isn’t exactly the point – the significance of this leadership modality will continue to evolve as we meet the challenge of climate change.


bottom of page