By David Robertson

The career success and impact of environmental and sustainability professionals, and the hope and promise of sustainable development more generally, increasingly depend on leadership skills and practices that resolve the wickedness of the Anthropocene, including the vagaries of climate change. In the Anthropocene, human activities dominate the biosphere—and climate—to such an extent that many complex systems such as water, energy, and food supply, which have been relatively tame and manageable in the past, are now increasingly dynamic, uncertain, and unpredictable—in other words, “wicked.” Systems leadership skills are needed to address these issues.

Taking on the challenges of the Anthropocene
Traditional problem-solving tools, such as technology, expertise, rationality, and authority, remain useful but are no longer sufficient. We need new approaches to leadership that will help stakeholders connect, collaborate, and adapt in the future.

Specifically, systems leadership practices are important to help people:

  • Connect across distance and coordinate their activities at varied scales of space and time—people who may never meet, don’t have authority over one another, and may not even know they are related (e.g., stakeholders located in different organizations, sectors, time zones, countries, and supply chains).
  • Collaborate amidst diversity and widening differences of opinion, identity, expertise, and culture (e.g., differences being fueled by filter bubbles, echo chambers, network propaganda, confirmation bias, and motivated reasoning).
  • Adapt to change and confounding uncertainty (e.g., people need the persistence, courage, and resilience to avoid analysis-paralysis, to fail forward, and to learn by doing).

Gaining skills and confidence to succeed
The Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program at Virginia Tech teaches these leadership skills, and more. The XMNR is an accelerated 1-year (12 months; 3 semesters) graduate degree program for working professionals. Most XMNR students have full-time jobs, and the curriculum is designed to help them improve their performance at work, advance their careers, and have greater influence and impact in their communities and networks. Each January, a new cohort of 30–40 students starts the program and begins an interactive learning journey that will have a profound impact on their lives. We believe that everyone can lead from where they are, and we teach practical knowledge and skills that students can apply and practice at work to improve their performance immediately. We have a proven track record of success in helping students achieve their career change and advancement goals.

For several years, we’ve been collecting pre- and post-program data on XMNR student competencies and confidence regarding leadership for sustainability. The results are impressive! Each year, students report that the XMNR program has significantly improved their knowledge and abilities regarding leadership for sustainability, often helping them move from a low/medium level to a high/very high level of confidence and competence. And, each year, the results have gotten better. Last year, students reported that their confidence and competence increased in all dimensions of the curriculum: connective leadership, collaborative leadership, and adaptive leadership.

Amplifying the message
In fact, the results have been so powerful that we felt compelled to share our findings with other educators. We reported on some of this pre- and post- program data in the journal Sustainability in a paper titled “Wicked Leadership Competencies for Sustainability Professionals: Definition, Pedagogy, and Assessment.” In that paper, we described how sustainability professionals need specialized leadership competencies to effectively influence the complex, uncertain, conflicted, and dynamic (i.e., wicked) challenges of the Anthropocene. This fall, Island Press is publishing a book titled Leadership for Sustainability that will elaborate on the systems leadership practices that we teach in the XMNR program. (The book is also available for preorder on Amazon and Goodreads.)

Growing stronger
2020 marks the 10th anniversary of the XMNR program. This year, our 10th cohort of 35 students started the XMNR in January and they will graduate in December. At that point, we will have just under 300 alumni. This is the equivalent of a small army of sustainability professionals equipped with the advanced leadership skills to help stakeholders connect, collaborate, and adapt to resolve the wickedness of the Anthropocene. We hope you or your colleagues will consider joining us in the classroom, where you will not only earn credentials and gain competencies but also build confidence and make connections that will help you have greater influence in the workplace and impact in your communities.

David Robertson headshot

David P. Robertson is the Founding Director of the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program and Senior Fellow and Associate Director at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability at Virginia Tech. Dr. Robertson has two decades of experience as a professional educator and sustainability leader, focusing on environmental design, green infrastructure, urban innovation, and climate change. David received an undergraduate degree in Art & Architecture from Montana State University prior to completing a Master of Landscape Architecture and a Ph.D. from Virginia Tech. Dr. Robertson’s publications appear in the popular, academic, and professional press, including journals such as Environmental Science & Policy, Environmental Management, Conservation Biology, and Society & Natural Resources, and books by Island Press. His most recent book, Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems, was published by Island Press this summer and slated to be released in the fall. The book can also be found on Amazon and Goodreads, where it’s available for preorder.