Leading the Way to a Sustainable Future

Nov 30, 2012 | Updated Jan 30, 2013

The subject line on an email I received the other day caught my eye. It read: "Is zero waste achievable for colleges and universities?"

The message was from an organization that wants to help higher education reach its sustainability goal, yet the question it posed seemed to subtly suggest that 'zero waste' may be too big of a goal to be realized.

The message and the influence it had hoped to have both fell flat. It did (however inadvertently) succeed in reminding me of three important things I believe higher education leaders must do when it comes to achieving any significant goal.

First, the goals we set should be lofty and aspirational. Visionary leaders set visionary goals. Too often, leaders avoid lofty goals for the fear of not achieving them. Think of where we would be if John F. Kennedy hadn't set the goal of placing a "man on the moon by the end of the decade" or if Martin Luther King Jr. didn't have a dream. Second, as visionary leaders, we must create cultural conditions within the organization which will inspire people to accomplish extraordinary feats. Third, and most importantly, we must model the change we want to see until it becomes reality.

As a member of the steering committee for the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), I have been immersed in the organization's activities and planning over the past year--and I have been impressed.

Our mission at the ACUPCC is "to accelerate progress towards climate neutrality and sustainability by empowering the higher education sector to educate students, create solutions, and provide leadership-by-example for the rest of society." The "leadership-by-example" part of the mission calls for college and university presidents to sign a commitment to have their campuses achieve climate neutrality, and be held accountable to this commitment. For college and university presidents, reaching climate neutrality is not unlike "going to the moon!" Some get intimidated by such a goal because they worry about obstacles and failure and simply refuse to commit. However, 664 college and university presidents have signed the commitment to date. I admire them for their boldness and dedication to leading-by-example.

When I signed the commitment, I had no idea how we at Alfred State were going to achieve this goal. However, I have been impressed by a core of champions who are working diligently in developing our "Sustainability and Climate Action Plan." After setting an aspirational goal, the next thing the leader needs to do is to create conditions for success, which in the case of sustainability in higher education involves developing a powerful internal culture that will act as an incubator for growth. Our plan calls for achieving complete climate neutrality by 2040 and I am confident that we can meet this goal with concerted effort by all members of the campus community--we are leading by example.

As leaders, we must model the change we want to see which means going beyond carefully chosen words and messages. It means developing innovative best practices and embracing them. It means celebrating successes achieved along the way and recognizing the "champions." This is where action takes over. Some call this "walking the talk" but it comes down to effective modeling and acting as if the goal is already achieved. This is the magic lever that makes all change possible! We like to operate on the notion Michelangelo set forth which is, simply stated: "The greatest danger we face is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it!"