Leadership Education for Sustainability: Balancing Confidence and Humility

Contributed by Molly Gilligan

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.

Listen to the entire conversation.

 About the author

Molly Gilligan is a candidate for a M.S. in Environmental Policy at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy. Molly is currently a Policy Intern for the Global Gender Office of the IUCN. She also served as a Legislative Intern in the D.C. Office of a U.S. Senator, working on agriculture, energy, and environmental policies. She earned a degree in Environmental Geology from Colgate University.


November 21, 2014 at 9:42 pm Leave a comment

What? A Green Car Booth at the Farmers Market? SilverLeaf Chronicles 3

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

A neighbor goaded me into addressing the question: Does an electric car booth belong at the farmers market? He asserted definitively that it does not, because the car has nothing to do with food.

As I was driving to the farmers market–in the SilverLeaf– to volunteer at the Autobarn NissanLEAF booth, I thought through my response to the question, a question others might raise as well.

My answer is that an electric car booth at the farmers market does make sense– from the standpoint of an eco-system in which cars and farming coexist in an interdependent manner. Auto emissions impact the weather, which in turn impacts crops, the farmers’ livelihoods, and ultimately our ability to enjoy the food they grow and share with us at the farmers market.

At a booth that sells Michigan Red Haven peaches, I overheard one of the farmers say that they’d lost almost half their crop this year because of weird weather. Every year for the past few years, I’ve heard the same kinds of stories from the farmers– farmers struggling with late frosts, too little rain or flooded fields from which there is no way to recover during that growing season. It’s not just a hassle for them. They are struggling to make it.

And if they can’t grow their crops because of global weirdness, we can’t enjoy the fruits– literally– of their labors.

What I call “global weirdness” is what climate scientists call climate disruption. The normal weather patterns on which farmers rely have been thrown out of whack by our global warming pollution– a third of that pollution comes from our tail pipes.

So if we connect the dots between farming and cars, yes, the zero emissions electric vehicle booth belongs at the farmers market.

Because it’s all connected. And we’re all connected.


 That’s me at the farmers market with Martin, the LEAF-driving salesman, and Richard the LEAF-driving manager of the Autobarn.  They believe in the car, and they love the car. As do I.



September 24, 2014 at 9:41 pm Leave a comment

The Case of the Missing NissanLeaf in Our Green-ish Vacation: The SilverLeaf Chronicles 2

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

photo 1-2

Our destination this year on our annual green-ish family vacation. The Mohican River as seen from the deck of the lodge in Mohican State Park in Loudonville, Ohio.  This really is Ohio. Who knew?

It’s about 350 miles from Chicago.  How did we pull that off in an all-electric car?  Well, we didn’t.

Our Nissan Leaf is notable for its absence in the second installment of the SilverLeaf Chronicles.

People often ask: What about road trips? How far can you go before you need to charge?

The truth is that with the current state of battery and charging station technology, the NissanLeaf is a local car… I’ve made it about 70 miles on a single charge. So, we rented. For about the cost of a month’s worth of gas in my old car.

Usually we go on our annual green-ish vacation to a beautiful little island in Maine where there’s no electricity– lovely and unplugged. This year, we converged in the middle of the country.

Along the road trip, we encountered the most vast and graceful wind farm I’d ever seen, near the border of Indiana and Ohio. Right in the heartland. That’s eco progress.

A note from my mom who accompanied me and my kids: We relied on smart phone technology for directions. And got lost. A case for old-fashioned paper maps in the road trip mix!

We may not have driven in an eco-friendly car, but we were thrilled to learn that the Mohican Lodge and its parent company offer green lodging.

Perhaps my favorite green initiative at the lodge:

photo 2-1

Why is this my favorite?  First, you can’t miss it in the restaurant. The servers all wear buttons that say “Straw Free.” We need “green” to be visible in order to create momentum. Second– and more important– this is an initiative adopted by all of the Xanterra Resorts that was launched by a kid. Learn more about Milo and his program. He’s using his spheres of influence to protect the planet, and he catalyzed Xanterra Resorts to use their spheres of influence. One cool, inspiring kid.

I also love these solar powered trash compactors and recycling cans called SolarBelly. We have them in Chicago, among other cities. They’re also hitting college campuses.

photo 2-2

Have you ever seen a recycling bag in a closet where the laundry bag usually hangs? This saved us from the hassle of having to haul our recycling home as we usually do.

photo 3-2

The lodge is also using its spheres of influence to educate guests about the value of recycling:

photo 1-3

And finally, another view of the Mohican River. A reason to go green for the sake our children?

photo 2-3

July 13, 2014 at 3:11 am Leave a comment

My Love Affair with the Nissan Leaf: The SilverLeaf Chronicles: I

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

My love affair with the Nissan Leaf began a year ago.

A month ago, I became the delighted owner of a Leaf that I’ve named “The Silver Leaf.” Hence the “SilverLeaf Chronicles.” Of which this is the first installment.

But perhaps I should say my love affair with the all-electric zero emissions Nissan Leaf really begins with my love for my kids. I became what I call an “unlikely environmentalist” when I realized that global warming poses a threat to my children’s health and well-being. When I understood that our addiction to coal and oil and gas was contributing to dangerous weather events and bringing tropical diseases to North America, I started down the Fierce Love path to protecting the planet for my kids– for all the kids we love fiercely.


Which brings me back to the Nissan Leaf. And the expected and unexpected delights of joining the community of electric car owners.

A year ago, my 9-year-old son– aka The DudeSter– was playing with a boy whose mom rolled up in a Nissan Leaf. She happens to be a very health-conscious family doctor.  We talked about how the Leaf– not their minivan– serves as the primary car for their family with three kids.  Ok, this can work as a family car.

I knew my car needed to be replaced. And I knew I was going to replace it with the greenest car I could. And it needed to work as a family car because I have two growing (READ: fast growing!) boys.

Meanwhile, my beau’s brother got a Leaf that they use as a family car with their two kids. He’s a geeky Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He crunches the numbers. He persuaded me that not only can this work as a family car, but leasing can be be affordable– and a way to keep moving up with fast-paced advances in green car technology.

I test drove a Prius, and hated the way it handled. I knew my brother, who’s driven a Prius for a handful of years, didn’t think they were safe with pedestrians because of the blocked vision for drivers and the lack of engine sound to cue pedestrians that a car is present. Plus, hybrids run not just on batteries but on gasoline (READ: global warming pollution).

So… I went to the Autobarn in Evanston IL, test drove the Leaf with Martin the sales guy who loves the Leaf he owns– and signed a three year lease.

Now, I drive the SilverLeaf. A really well-designed affordable family car that doesn’t need gasoline. Ever.  I drive guilt free.

And what’s really cool– and unexpected– is I’ve joined a small but growing community of electric car drivers. We find each other and bond. It’s a great, fun social perk. Who knew?

Wanna join us in going green and getting happy? Follow me on Twitter @drsarahsviews as I chronicle our family’s journey through life in and out of the SilverLeaf!

June 21, 2014 at 10:32 pm Leave a comment

Soap, Biodiesel & Lawns: Partnering for Sustainability in Higher Education

Contributed by D. John Mascarenhas, MBA

Picture this. College students creating a way to use the sun’s energy to recapture and then reuse methanol from caustic water. That water is an unwanted byproduct of taking the waste grease from campus dining and making biodiesel, which is then sold to the campus shuttle bus operator. All part of a student-run sustainable enterprise — “intrapreneurship” in action.

Is this a snapshot of a more sustainable future? Yes, it is. And, it’s happening right now at Loyola University Chicago.

The story above comes from Nancy Tuchman, PhD, Founding Director of Loyola’s new Institute of Environmental Sustainability. During a Spheres of Influence Virtual Fireside Chat on April 2, 2014, she talked about the principles of sustainability that students learn, and how Loyola then empowers students to design and build innovative sustainable solutions that have value in the marketplace. In other words, students have a structured way to become sustainable entrepreneurs.

The primary goal of the Institute of Environmental Sustainability, says Dr. Tuchman, is to raise awareness through education and experiential learning about issues of environmental sustainability that threaten our planet. The Institute is focused in the areas of sustainability that line up well with Loyola’s environmental academic expertise, including the loss of biodiversity, the broken food system, and climate change.

In particular, the Institute considers problems caused by our current linear resource-to-product-to-waste system and looks to circular natural systems that thrive on a waste-eliminating loop. As it’s often said, “nothing is wasted in nature.”

Tuchman enthusiastically talks about how the students want to go further to close the product loop. Seeing that they had more biodiesel than they could sell to the campus bus system, Loyola did the heavy lifting to become the first school to be EPA certified in manufacturing and distributing biodiesel. (And, it published a manual on how to do that.)

To further close the loop, the students learned and applied chemistry to extract the methanol from wastewater and, after much trial and error, to make soap from lye — another biodiesel waste product.

The fireside chat also included a discussion about corporate-higher education partnerships. Loyola has a career development program with Baxter International. They are developing internships at Baxter’s Chicago-based labs as part of the corporation’s industry-leading sustainability initiatives.

The second guest featured in the Spheres Fireside chat was Marc Goodman, MBA, a consultant who has spent approximately two decades in corporations such as Alcatel-Lucent and Motorola promoting innovation and creating strategic partnerships between higher education and corporations.

Asked about how both parties benefit from partnerships, Goodman says that corporations receive good PR and a ‘halo’ effect across their brand. Colleges and universities learn what is happening today in the market, from experts who are seeing a changing world. And students’ experiences with corporations guide their thoughts on jobs and career opportunities.

Our host, Dr. Sarah Warren, asks Goodman to advise Loyola on a potential partnership. Nancy Tuchman introduces a case study: In Loyola’s community, there are hundreds of the small urban grass yards that are familiar to us all, but are in fact unsustainable. Solutions would include native landscaping and edible gardens, resulting in better biodiversity and less storm water runoff (the kind that leads to basement flooding).

Goodman suggests getting small teams of students to create sample plots of land on campus. Once there are a few different successful samples (size, types of plants, etc.), then they might partner with the City of Chicago to market the solutions in different communities. The City gets to forward it’s “green initiatives” through the partnership.

And now, the value of the fireside chat format comes into play, through an open discussion of challenges and opportunities. Out of this conversation emerges a potential collaborative approach among universities: Several Chicago-based universities could partner with each other and with the City to test and then implement sustainable yard solutions in each school’s hyper-local community. Best practices and learnings can be shared. Impact could be broader and more efficient.

Goodman sums the conversation up by remarking that today’s students are very interested in giving back and in being entrepreneurial. Students may even want to connect across universities, and longer-lived teams could solve the ‘semester timeline’ challenge. Students can make an impact, and gain experience that future employers will value.

This session resonates with me as the blogger. I have been working in sustainable management since 2007, and was on the founding teams of three start-up ventures before that. There are many names for what’s happening in Chicago, the US and around the globe: “Social entrepreneurship” and “sustainable ventures” among them. What matters is that by whatever name its called, there is a willingness to create a long-term sustainable vision, and to get to work: to take risks, to innovate by exploring new approaches, to learn in a real world setting, and to get solutions to scale. This is part of a movement that we need to lead us to a more equitable, sustainable prosperity.

About the Author

D. John Mascarenhas, MBA guides businesses, non-profits and entrepreneurs as a sustainability and business growth consultant. As a Partner with Sustainametrics, John works closely with clients to develop sustainable strategy, prioritize goals and initiatives, and develop clear measurement-based implementation plans. In working with clients, John actively listens, tailors and applies proven methodologies, adds insight and guidance, and supports them in setting and achieving ambitious goals.

Since 2007, John has worked in the evolving field of Sustainable Management. He specializes in project management; sustainability strategy, planning and implementation; analysis and prioritization of sustainability initiatives; stakeholder engagement; financial analysis, business cases and funding; and GHG quantification and emissions reduction strategy.

Previously, John had strategy, business development and operations roles on the founding teams of three start-up ventures. His entrepreneurial work included strategy, business development, financial model/projections, and marketing strategy with FullAudio (digital music service, later sold to AOL), Second Cycle (web-based process improvement software) and Digital Senseworks (design and integration of smart home systems).

John’s education includes an Executive Certificate in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School, an MBA from Cornell University’s Johnson School, a BA in Economics from Bucknell University.


April 14, 2014 at 9:36 pm Leave a comment

From Tinkering to Transformation: Wisdom From Julie Newman of MIT

Contributed by Ilsa Flanagan, JD

Julie Newman– featured guest in a recent Spheres of Influence Virtual Fireside Chat– has been launching and leading higher education sustainability offices for a long time, almost 20 years.  So when she started her new position as Director of Sustainability at MIT last year, she was of a mind to do things differently, to figure out how to create what she calls “the next generation sustainability office.” As a pioneer in this field, Newman stays engaged by being in a constant state of inquiry.  Are we using the most effective approach?  What impact are we really having? Newman is employing her own brain trust of MIT colleagues and friends in the field to pose and answer such questions.

Sustainability offices in higher education have taken off in the last several years, as evidenced by the burgeoning membership in AASHE and the proliferation of offices on college campuses.  They’ve been successful in addressing a wide range of environmental issues, tracking data, and leading engagement and awareness building activities.   These days on college campuses you’ll see community gardens, compost bins, solar arrays, ubiquitous recycling containers, and various directives telling you what you should (“throw your plastics here”) and shouldn’t (“don’t leave your office lights on”) do.

But Newman wants us to think beyond these incremental changes, to think about transformation and to consider what the “next gen” office should look like.

Newman has some ideas. For one, it’s not waiting to be called to the decision-making table. By “moving into the core of the institution,” Newman plans to position the sustainability office as a nexus of connectivity with the intellectual capital to create a network of faculty, students and staff. This network will consider the complex issues of sustainability as a system, not stand-alone concerns.  To get to next gen, Newman is reflecting on a number of questions:

Are we having the societal impact that we have set out to have?
Are we merely doing less bad, or are we transforming?  Are we being regenerative?
If we need new models, what kind do we need?
Do the incremental steps, the tinkering, eventually lead to transformation?
Is the narrative we created years ago still relevant?
What role does science play? Have we set goals that align ourselves with the science regionally and globally?

Newman knows that there are some sustainability offices already engaging in this level of inquiry.  In fact, it’s the very nature of sustainability staff that can create the space for these conversations to happen.  As Newman says, they tend to be “multilingual” in that they can connect with and relate to a diverse mix of people:  building managers, engineers, administration, faculty and students, and community leaders.  “This is a unique characteristic we bring to these positions [that allows us] to transform the way we make decisions, our ability to take risks, our ability to frame a new future.”

All these questions can keep Newman up at night.  Ultimately, she is concerned that sustainability offices remain more risk-averse than she’d anticipated when early in her career she helped launch sustainability efforts at the University of New Hampshire.

And it leads to more questions:

What do we have to do next to expedite the adaptation of new design and technologies?
How do we make our institutions more comfortable with risk, and possibly failure?

For now, Newman is happy to be exploring these questions.  But at MIT she is adamant that her office not be defined by incremental change.  She senses that this is making people uncomfortable, so she must be on the right path.

Listen to the MP3 of February 2014 Spheres of Influence Virtual Roundtable:

About the Author

Ilsa Flanagan, JD is an accomplished organizational strategist and visionary leader with over 15 years of experience designing and leading environmental and social programs across sectors.  As president of i flanagan consulting, she provides mission-driven leaders with the expertise and tools to create high performing, purpose-driven organizations that are addressing the critical issues of our time.

A pioneer in the field of sustainability, Ilsa uses a data-driven, relationship-centric approach to create institutional change and long-term value. Within the context of the organization’s culture and ethos, she makes connections among people and systems to successfully build and implement strong programs with meaningful results.

Most recently Ilsa was the University of Chicago’s founding executive director for its Office of Sustainability where she developed a transformative campus-wide program with a focus on faculty, student and community research and partnerships. Before joining the University, Ilsa was the founding director and senior vice president of Sustainable Development at LaSalle Bank/ABN AMRO. She led the company’s efforts to develop a North American Sustainable Development initiative aligned with its global program.  As the associate director at SUSTAIN, a nonprofit environmental communications group, she was an early advocate in the good food movement.  Ilsa also spent over a decade in Washington DC and was head of public policy for the United Way of America.

March 7, 2014 at 12:00 pm Leave a comment

Mandela Passes the Mantle: How Will You Play Your Bigger Game?

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

When my father died unexpectedly 11 years ago, a friend of his said “The old trees are falling.” I had just given birth to my first son. My brother and I nervously acknowledged to each other that we weren’t quite sure we were ready to become the elders. But we didn’t have a choice.

In Mandela’s passing, an old and graceful tree has fallen.

Mandela died the day after the Spheres of Influence virtual fireside chat on Playing a Bigger Game, about challenging ourselves to expand our impact.

Many people have been writing and speaking about leadership lessons from one of the greatest leaders of our times. His courage.  His wisdom.  His grace.

As I’ve listened to many people share their memories, I’ve been particularly struck by his sense of humor, which he used to engage, to disarm, and to challenge.

Those of us who are involved in causes, including the cause of environmental sustainability, are often afflicted by an excess of earnestness and self-righteousness. I am guilty of this myself at times, in spite of my best efforts. And although I can be playful, humor isn’t my forte.

Mandela’s passing has made me reflect on what my father’s death has meant for me. And it has reinvigorated my sense of calling to use my talents to the greatest extent possible, to live into the responsibility of an elder.

Few of us have the grandeur of a Mandela. Yet we can all learn from the many leadership gifts that Mandela embodied.

How will you step up your use of your Spheres of Influence? How will you play your Biggest Game?

How will you assume the mantle that Mandela has passed on?

Post a comment about how you are answering the call to action!

December 17, 2013 at 4:26 am Leave a comment

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