International Center for Tropical Agriculture

Why Leadership is Essential for Achieving Sustainable Development Goals

At the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit on September 25th, 2015, more than 150 world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 new Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the Global Goals, aim to end poverty, hunger and inequality, take action on climate change and the environment, improve access to health and education, and build strong institutions and partnerships.

The performance of any country, in seeking to achieve SDGs, to a large extent depends on leadership. Effective leadership translates into prudent public policy formulation and implementation, as well as good public service delivery, to meet the needs and aspirations of the citizenry.

Achieving the SDGs will require the concerted efforts of governments, the business sector, society, and individual citizens. Innovative leadership and management will be essential for organizations in all sectors to integrate these development goals into strategic plans and operational activities in service of realizing the 2030 aspirations.

Leadership for achieving sustainable development is rooted in a living processes paradigm, rather than a mechanistic paradigm. Complex living processes demonstrate sustainable properties and patterns and can suggest important strategies for leadership. Qualities of living processes (how all life operates) include resiliency, adaptability, awareness, creativity, and relationships. Considering that our world is inherently paradoxical, that multiple realities exist, and that living beings organize and adapt according to their environments, leadership must be adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient, willing to learn, intelligent—attributes only found in living systems.

Today’s challenges for attaining sustainable development are complicated, interconnected, and will need everyone to work towards creating a more sustainable future. Therefore leaders, rather than providing a solution, need to “create opportunities for people to come together and generate their own answers.” Leaders should not only bring people together and encourage creative participation, but should help people embrace a relationship with uncertainty, chaos, and emergence. Working together to solve problems, even when values are shared, can be a difficult process. Leaders must understand that the tension, conflict and uncertainty that come from differences can provide great potential for the creative emergence of viable solutions.

The world needs effective leadership for sustainable development and this leadership requires an inner process, in which a leader must first be grounded in an understanding of self and a relational view of the world, in order to effectively work with others to make change. In addition, reflection is a process of “understanding one’s own skills, knowledge and values within the context of community groups.” This reflective process allows for feedback loops, and cycles of growth and change. Leadership should thus be understood as an inclusive, collaborative and a reflective process rooted in values and ethics.

To achieve the SDGs, leadership at both the national and organizational levels must adopt leadership styles that engender a sense of shared responsibility toward the attainment of the goals, is focused on the long-term, and thus would establish systems that would persistently ensure the pursuance of these goal in the future. Leaders must understand the need for collective efforts at both the national and organizational levels, be willing to learn and finally exhibit and promote ethical behavior and standards.

For attaining the SDGs, leaders must manage resources, be visionary and ethical, and focus on long-term goals without compromising values and principles. Moreover, leaders should be motivated by a vision to achieve the goals in the midst of changing environmental factors and involve all stakeholders in the governance process. The effects of this kind of leadership coupled with coordination and participation of all concerned would potentially lead to improvements in economic efficiency, social cohesion and environmental responsibility. These are the three basic indicators of sustainable development.

The achievement of sustainable development is observed as a cyclical relationship with planning and implementation and monitoring of the strategies as key responsibilities of the leader. Finally, strong leadership, a coherent implementation plan and engagement of all government departments and diverse stakeholders are necessary to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals are achieved at national and international levels.