Bearing the Burden of Sustainable Leadership

September 22, 2022
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Chief executive officers are facing increasing scrutiny from the public, media, and investors. They are often being held accountable on topics that are tangential to the organization’s goals that might be social, political, or environmental issues. As a result, leaders must deliver financial performance at the same time as ensuring their company is run with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) commitments at its heart. Leading in a complex world where seemingly insurmountable issues are high on the agenda ironically calls for a simpler leadership model. 

In a climate of rising inequality and political and economic instability, trust in politicians and media organizations is falling, while trust in corporate leaders is increasing. This responsibility takes its toll on leaders. As Lindsay Levin highlighted during our recent podcast conversation, leaders working on long-term systemic problems become exhausted as they struggle with the limitless nature of the issues they’re tackling. 

In a new report from Corporate Research Forum (CRF), Making a Paradigm Shift in Leadership Development, I was asked to discuss what this means for leadership development. 


Nothing is certain

Leaders are increasingly expected to lead with purpose and passion. However, the relentless pace and scope of work mean they are rarely afforded the time and space for the reflection that’s needed for them to effectively manage stress and recovery.

Leaders need to fill up their tanks across four types of energy: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. This is particularly important as leaders have to show up with presence, humility, authenticity, and transparency on multiple Zoom calls over the working day. It’s exhausting. 

Therefore, the new standard of leadership development needs to support leaders on an internal journey to develop self-awareness, explore how they show up as a leader, understand their impact on others, and, importantly, build their capacity for dealing with complexity.

The way this is translating into leadership development programs is simpler than you might expect.


Simple solutions

As the research by CRF shows, we are witnessing a trend away from complex, detailed leadership competency models and toward a simplified approach. These frameworks better reflect the environmental uncertainty organizations face as they look to the future. 

In terms of how the broad characteristics for leading in complexity might play out, I’d highlight:

  • Leaders need to demonstrate empathy, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence. 
  • They need to meet individuals where they are, listen, and understand their needs.
  • They need humility to accept that others might know more than they do and a mindset of curiosity and openness. 
  • Leaders who are well-connected can open more doors for their teams to help solve their problems.
  • Leaders need to be able to create psychological safety in their teams so that members value one another’s contributions, have an input, and feel able to speak up.


In a complex world, leadership becomes more about “understanding multiple perspectives and balancing seemingly irreconcilable polarities, rather than providing definitive answers.” To read more about the future of leadership development, including insights from companies like Anglo American, Heidrick & Struggles, KPMG, and Schneider Electric, I invite you to download the full report.

Download your copy of Making a Paradigm Shift in Leadership Development
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David Astorino is a senior partner and member of RHR International’s operating committee. For more than 20 years, he has been applying his expertise to complex client engagements, helping CEOs and boards of directors successfully drive the human side of transformational change within their organizations.