Chapter 6: Applying Sustainability to Presidential Leadership

by Andrea Chapdelaine, Ph.D.

Posted on November 14, 2023

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The concept of sustainability can serve as a useful leadership framework for presidents of institutions of higher education. Avery and Bergsteiner (2011) describe sustainable leadership as characterized by a long-term perspective that creates a better future for everyone by balancing economic prosperity, social well-being, and environmental responsibility. A sustainable leader works to ensure that their organization functions in such a way as to “protect the planet, care for the local communities in which it operates and protects its image and brand through ethical behavior” (Avery & Bergsteiner, 2011a, p.17).

Sustainable leadership also has been called honeybee leadership, in that a honeybee colony reflects an environmentally beneficial “organization;” as opposed to a locust approach to leadership, which expends resources for short-term, individual gain and survival. Further, in a honeybee colony, each bee is uniquely suited to complete a task (e.g., forage, climate control, tending to the queen, defense) critical to the hive’s sustainability; and, together, the bees operate as an efficient, cooperative, and fully renewable production system that not only benefits the colony, but also contributes significantly to the planet’s food chain and the health of our ecosystem. Similarly, a sustainable leader empowers organizational members with the knowledge, ability, understanding, and resources necessary to fulfill their role in achieving the organization’s mission and goals, have positive impact, and contribute to long-term sustainability.

As noted by Fien (2014), “the traditional model of the hierarchical leader with strong authority is replaced by a leader who works in a participatory team environment where goals are created through a collaborative and shared decision-making process. Such an approach is essential to leading in times of uncertainty and flux and where the science and evidence upon which decisions can be made are ambiguous” (p.14). I believe most would agree that this is a fitting characterization of higher education currently (and likely times past and still to come as well).

Colleges and universities, as one of the oldest and most enduring businesses, strive to produce a continuous pipeline of graduates necessary for human prosperity, world peace, and our planet’s survival. It is for this reason higher education serves as a public good that must be sustained. Given today’s formidable challenges for our campuses and the obligation we have to long-term stewardship of our institutions, a sustainable approach to presidential leadership becomes essential. In The Small College Imperative: Models for a Sustainable Future (2020), Marcy makes a similar argument: “The purpose of the institution and its distinctive educational contributions should be preserved in the midst of change; they provided the reasons for the creation of the campus and offer the justification for its continued existence” (p.14).

Having made the argument for the applicability of sustainable leadership theory to the college or university presidency, I now turn to its components and their application to higher education.

Elements of Sustainable Leadership

 Avery and Bergsteiner (2011a) propose a pyramidal model of sustainable leadership, with the following 20 organizational practices serving as the foundation:
  1. Developing people
  2. Cooperative employee relations
  3. Staff retention
  4. Succession planning
  5. Valuing staff
  6. Senior management works as a team
  7. Ethical behavior as core value
  8. Long-term financial sustainability
  9. Change as a considered and evolving process
  10. Autonomy from external market forces
  11. Environmental responsibility
  12. Social responsibility
  13. Consideration of all stakeholders
  14. Shared vision drives strategy
  15. Consensual and shared decision-making
  16. Employee autonomy and empowerment
  17. Team approach throughout organization
  18. Empowering culture that is widely shared
  19. Open and transparent knowledge-sharing
  20. High level of trust and goodwill 
Their model proposes that these foundational practices lead to three higher-order practices that act as performance drivers: strategic, systemic innovation; high levels of staff engagement; and product quality. In turn, these performance divers result in five performance outcomes (the pinnacle of the pyramid): 1) strong brand, 2) high customer satisfaction, 3) robust financial performance, 4) shareholder gains, and 5) stakeholder value. As a whole, the model reflects sustainable leadership’s emphasis on the long-term, positive outcomes for a broadly defined set of stakeholders and the interdependency across all facets of the organization. Although a full review is beyond the scope of this article, research has demonstrated support for these outcomes (Avery & Bergsteiner, 2011a, 2011b; Kantabutra & Avery, 2013; Suriyankietkaew & Avery, 2016).

Application to Higher Education Leadership

Given its holistic and systemic approach to leadership, rather than a focus on an individual leader’s attributes, the practices described above are applicable to most if not all areas of presidential responsibility. Here are some examples demonstrating how these principles can inform and guide campus operations (relevant elements noted by number after each).
  1. Broad constituent participation in the development of the institution’s mission, vision, values, and strategic goals (13, 14, 15)
  2. Strong commitment to shared governance at all levels of the institution (1, 2, 6, 9, 13, 15, 19)
  3. Employee policies that support retention, recognition, and empowerment, such as tenure, sabbaticals, educational benefits, workplace flexibility, service awards (1-5, 12, 13, 16, 18)
  4. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice focus in curriculum, professional development, campus programming, hiring, and community engagement (5, 7, 12, 13, 18, 20)
  5. Funding for professional development, faculty research, and student experiential learning opportunities (1, 3, 5, 18)
  6. ESG principles and long-term stable growth guiding endowment management (7-12)
  7. Adherence to environmentally friendly practices in physical plant maintenance and improvements (7, 8, 10-13)
  8. Activities that benefit the local community such as volunteerism, sharing expertise to address local issues, economic and workforce development partnerships (7, 11, 12, 19, 20)
  9. Robust and long-term alumni engagement through continued educational benefits, shared governance, and current student support (1, 4, 8, 13-15, 19-20)
With regard to the performance drivers, these foundational practices in higher education should foster innovative and timely change in response to pressing challenges and opportunities, high levels of employee satisfaction and commitment to student success, and a superior educational experience. Finally, resulting performance outcomes include, among others: student satisfaction, efficient and effective operations, financial stability, alumni support and engagement, positive community relations, enhanced reputation and perceived value as a public good, and most important, high levels of student success (i.e., graduation rates and post-degree outcomes).
Although limited, research has demonstrated a positive impact of sustainable leadership on institutions of higher education. For example, in a survey of more than 50 universities, Leal Filho et al. (2020) found that senior higher education leaders identified the practices of vision, holistic thinking, innovation, and integrity as critical components of effective leadership and curricular change and community relations as important to long-term sustainability. These practices, along with valuing and empowering employees, strong shared governance, commitment to justice principles, and mission alignment, have also been found to contribute to successful outcomes for colleges and universities (Al-Zawahreh, Khasawneh, & Al-Jaradat, 2019; Aung & Hallinger, 2023; Avery & Hughes, 2012; Dalati, Raudeliuniene, & Davidaviciene, 2017). Also, in her aforementioned book, Marcy (2020) provides examples of several presidents using sustainable leadership practices to achieve institutional transformation.
Given the daunting challenges currently facing higher education that have, unfortunately, led to instability for some institutions, adopting such a sustainable leadership approach might seem, at best, a luxury one cannot afford or, at worst, a strategy that could exacerbate current threats. For example, employment of these practices might require increasing costs in order to retain employees or to use green building practices. If your hive is in imminent danger of a bear attack, that must demand all your attention rather than ensuring there is enough food! The tyranny of the urgent (e.g., annual revenue shortfalls, a public relations threat, an HVAC failure) is a barrier to sustainable leadership with which all presidents must contend. Presidents are frequently faced with the difficult task of implementing short-term strategies (e.g., increasing institutional aid, foregoing compensation increases, deferring physical plant maintenance) in order to ensure the institution’s continued viability. What is critical is that such measures are identified as only that—temporary fixes—and are done in the context of innovation that will lead to a more sustainable future (Marcy, 2020). This balance between these oft-competing interests is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges of college and university presidents. 

An ideal opportunity to implement a sustainable approach to presidential leadership is in strategic visioning and planning.  

An ideal opportunity to implement a sustainable approach to presidential leadership is in strategic visioning and planning. To exemplify, my institution has adopted sustainable leadership theory as a framework for our pending reaccreditation process. The first step will be a collective assessment of the status of each of the sustainable leadership practices. This will be followed by campus-wide engagement (achieved via the self-study working groups) in the development of strategies to strengthen practices identified as in need of enhancement. Such strategies will be connected to the accreditation standards to demonstrate compliance and opportunities for improvement. Ideally, this will provide a holistic and interconnected approach that will move beyond the immediate (reaccreditation) to a shared vision of the College’s future. This vision will then serve as the foundation for the College’s next strategic plan, whose goals will facilitate achievement of the aforementioned key performance outcomes and continued sustainability (see for resources).


Sustainable leadership requires visionary thinking, a deep understanding of the institutions’ complexity and how decisions impact all areas, a commitment to shared governance, genuine concern for all stakeholders (internal and external), and an unwavering commitment to the institution’s mission and values. It also requires courage and self-sacrifice to forego immediate success to ensure long-term sustainability. The presidency is not for the faint of heart, especially in the current higher education climate. Therefore, presidents must find ways to maintain their own commitment and fortitude.

Recently, conversations with presidential colleagues focus on increased levels of stress and greater difficulty sustaining self in order to best serve one’s institution. The declining tenure and higher turnover in presidencies reflect this phenomenon. If only presidents, like the queen bee, had a colony of workers whose sole purpose is to tend to their needs! I would argue that sustainable leadership is in fact one such way. Like worker bees, presidential tenures are short relative to that of the colleges and universities they serve. Keeping in mind that our institutions face and overcome many challenges both before and after one’s own tenure can provide needed perspective in particularly difficult times or when making unpopular decisions. Further, knowing one’s hard work will yield positive outcomes for generations of students yet to come is a continual source of energy and inspiration.

In conclusion, by adopting a sustainable leadership approach to the roles and responsibilities of the presidency, collectively, we can create a more sustainable future for higher education, our broader community and ourselves.


Al-Zawahreh, A., Khasawneh, S. & Al-Jaradat, M. (2019). Green management practices in higher education: The status of sustainable leadership. Tertiary Education Management, 25, 53–63.

Aung, P. N. & Hallinger, P. (2023). Research on sustainability leadership in higher education: A scoping review. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 24(3), 517-534.

Avery, G. & Bergsteiner, H. (2011a). Sustainable leadership: Honeybee and locust approaches. New York: Routledge.

Avery, G. & Bergsteiner, H. (2011b). How BMW successfully practices sustainable leadership principles. Strategy & Leadership, 39(6) 11-18.

Avery, G. & Hughes, B. (Eds.) (2012). Fresh thoughts in sustainable leadership, vol. 1. Australia: Tilde University Press.

Dalati, S., Raudeliuniene, J., & Davidaviciene, V. (2017). Sustainable leadership, organizational trust on job satisfaction: Empirical evidence from higher education institutions in Syria. Business, Management and Education, 15(1), 14-27.

Fien, J. (2014). Chasing the honey bee: Enhancing leadership for sustainability. Retrieved from:

Kantabutra, S. & Avery, G. (2013). Sustainable leadership: Honeybee practices at a leading Asian industrial conglomerate. Asia-Pacific Journal of Business Administration, 5(1), 36-56.

Leal Filho, W., Eustachio, J.H.P.P., Caldana, A.C.F., Will, M., Lange Salvia, A., Rampasso, I.S., Anholon, R., Platje, J., & Kovaleva, M. (2020). Sustainability leadership in higher education institutions: An overview of challenges. Sustainability, 12, 3761.

Marcy, M. (2020). The small college imperative: Models for sustainable futures. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Suriyankietkaew, S., & Avery, G. (2016). Sustainable leadership practices driving financial performance: Empirical evidence from Thai SMEs. Sustainability, 8(4), 327.