Do you struggle to achieve long-term reform in your college or university? Are you a leader setting priorities for innovation at your campus to attract more students while trying to sustain your institution’s business model? Have you taken several initiatives to improve your campus culture, but nothing really worked? Are members of your student organization burnt out trying to meet end-of-semester deadlines? Do you have a new department chair or university president who does not see the value in the initiatives started by their predecessor?

If the answer to any of these question is yes, then you are dealing with challenges in achieving sustainability in your institution.

In the last three decades, continuous change, uncertainty, job instability, and work-personal life integration have emerged as four drivers of organizational challenges.  These organizational challenges have led employees to report fatigue, unclear expectations, an inability to disconnect from work as well as an increase in anxiety, depression, and stress. Higher education institutions are no exception. They can only be sustainable if they foster resilience, adopt a team-centric approach, establish clarity, and leverage stress to address the root causes of organizational challenges.

Sustainability is more than a trendy concept – it is about planting and nourishing a resilient culture of continuous improvement. 

Countless authors have written about facilitating change, yet over the last thirty years only about one-third of these change efforts have been successful. Many of these change efforts have been mostly about growing potted plants, rather than forming a strong set of roots which will anchor and sustain the organization. Potted plants, like many “change” activities, can be easily discarded when beginning to wilt.

In this way, leaders who are focused on building sustainable organizations are like gardeners. They cannot simply run to the store and purchase the plant on the shelf; they need to be experts at planting seeds; establishing healthy soil, ensuring appropriate water, sunlight, and nutrients; nurturing through illness; and understanding the entire growing ecosystem. It is up to them to ensure that needs of the present are met, without compromising the needs of the future. Sustainability does not simply mean to ensure whether something will last. Rather, sustaining means nourishing.

Now, more than ever, higher education needs leadership to cultivate sustainable organizations and the key to sustainability is not just individual leaders, but their leadership. Charismatic leaders may lift their institutions to new heights, but often leave behind shoes that are too big for successors to fill. Sometimes, when leaders move on, they may take their teams with them, leaving behind a vacuum with no one to lead or manage ongoing initiatives. Thus, sustainable leadership is not just realized by enigmatic leaders, but instead it extends beyond individuals and dynamically connects the actions of predecessors and successors.

Scholars oforganizational sustainability note that institutions with sustainableleadership have three traits: a systems approach, collaborationacross boundaries, and problem-solving beyond reactivity. Much like thegardener needs to consider the entire ecosystem in order to sustain her garden,a leader needs to understand the organizational ecosystem in order to sustainher college or university. Moreover, the complex and decentralized nature ofhigher education organizations really requires that there be gardeners embeddedthroughout and that they are continually training new gardeners.  When they proactively interact with eachother and engage each other, their combined impact becomes powerful, leadingtowards sustainability. This way even if one leaves, the entire garden (orinstitution) does not die.

So, if you are a sustainable leader tryingto manage more than just organizational change, these sevenprinciples of sustainability can serve as a guide as you cultivateyour higher education garden. <view enlargedinfographic>

The first principle encourages leaders to engage higher education community members and go beyond temporary gains to lasting, meaningful improvements in their institutions that matter. The second principle of sustainability emphasizes regulating the frequency of leadership successions, and mentoring successors to continue reforms. Sustainability in higher education leadership means planning and preparing for succession – not just as an afterthought, but from the first day of appointment. The third principle of sustainable leadership focuses on distributing leadership and building a sense of mutual responsibility throughout the team, allowing shared decision-making and shifting away from individual control. The fourth principle inextricably ties higher education to issues of social justice, while being cognizant of marginalized communities and their concerns. The fifth principle emphasizes conservation of resources so sustainable leadership systems can preserve and improve while taking care of their leaders, and letting leaders take care of themselves and the system. The sixth principle values diversity and cultivates different kinds of excellence in learning, teaching and leading, as opposed to imposing standardized templates on everyone. The final principle of sustainable leadership focuses on innovation and resilience through its own strength.

Due to the multi-dimensional nature of sustainable leadership, higher education leaders should be aware of these seven principles while assertively engaging with their local campus environment. Further, sustainable leadership demands adaptability and creating systems that are personalized for their institutions so they can continue to cultivate their gardens instead of scattering around some potted plants.