Note: the content of this post is an abridged version of a paper I wrote for my M.Ed in Sustainability, Creativity and Innovation at Cape Breton University. 

Educators at all levels have been called upon to help meet the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations, 2016). These goals make clear that, through education, we need to prepare our students to take leadership for sustainability in all spheres, from social justice to economy to science. Goal 4 is to “ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning” (United Nations, 2016a); this includes the target to “ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development…” (United Nations, 2016a, p. para 7) The UN is calling on everyone to make positive changes towards a sustainable future, and the UNECE’s model of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) (United Nations Economic Commisison for Europe, 2016) provides educators with the competences necessary to make that happen in schools.

However, knowledge alone does not translate into action (Hungerford & Volk, 1990). People need to be empowered to act: they need to know that they are capable of being change-makers. Thus, students need opportunities to practice in school, through the use of new pedagogies that allow for real-world action projects. Concurrently, leadership skills and character strengths must be developed, enabling students to access these strengths and take action.

Many schools and schools of thought have developed their own lists of leadership traits, dimensions, characteristics or skills to be valued and developed. Today, we need leaders to ensure that the Earth and its inhabitants are capable of supporting the rapid growth of the 21st century. We need leaders who will help us meet the sustainable development goals as outlined by the UN (United Nations, 2016). We need young people to grow up knowing that they have the leadership qualities, skills and character traits necessary to enable them to be agents of positive, sustainable change.

As education continues to innovate, and new pedagogies are embraced in more and more schools around the world, students have an unprecedented opportunity to develop leadership. Educational leaders and organizations are emphasizing entrepreneurship, innovation, and “21st century skills” – all of which call for such commonly touted leadership traits as collaboration, creativity, perseverance, and initiative ( O’Brien & Murray, 2015; P21, 2016; Zhao, 2012).

Which leadership traits do we want to reveal and nurture in our students today so that they will be making responsible, ethical, and sustainable decisions tomorrow? Based on leader character frameworks from different fields as well as the principles of sustainable development, I have drafted a framework of Leader Character for Sustainability (LCfS).

LCfS recognizes that in order to become change agents, students need to feel empowered to do so. Hungerford and Volk (1990) draw on various models to show that responsible environmental behaviour results from an intention to act which in turn is facilitated by a mix of personality factors, knowledge of action strategies, and action skills. They show that while environmental sensitivity and in-depth knowledge about issues are critical, action is not taken unless people feel empowered to act. I would add to this that leader character traits are essential to this feeling of empowerment.  ESD, therefore, cannot simply be about acquiring, or even creating knowledge. Inherent to any ESD curriculum must be the use of new pedagogies that lead to the development of leader character traits and skills, from an early age.

Leader Character for Sustainability (LCfS)

LCfS framework

Growth Mindset 

Growth mindset, put forward by Carol Dweck (2006), allows for students to know that they can improve and learn. This is associated with persistence and resilience. It is also connected to creativity and optimism (Seijts, Gandz, Crossan, & Reno, 2015), which I believe are essential to problem-solving and innovation. Having a growth mindset is necessary for the development of all of the other traits.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is associated with problem-solving and judgment in many of the frameworks. Critical thinking is crucial for LCfS because students must learn to evaluate and analyse the information that they are getting and using. They must decide what actions to take and what steps are necessary.


It could be argued that collaboration is not a strength but a skill. However, I include it because in today’s world, we are called upon to collaborate in every sphere and across physical and virtual space. Innovative solutions to problems are possible when we combine strengths to achieve a goal. The Earth Charter calls for a “new sense of global interdependence and universal responsibility” (Earth Charter International, 2000, p. 4). Collaboration is essential to the understanding that we are interconnected.


Compassion for self, for others, and for the more-than human world will allow us to have empathy, will encourage social awareness and justice, and will permit us to consider the views and experiences of others. This is an essential virtue that may help to temper other virtues in the framework such as Drive.


Humility involves knowing one’s place in the world, and understanding one’s fundamental connection to all other living and non-living things on the planet. It requires self-awareness, which is an essential leadership skill in terms of knowing our strengths and weaknesses, our biases, and our beliefs. Curiosity is also associated with humility, in that it leads to a desire to continually learn.


Other frameworks have identified traits such as Justice and Honesty. I propose the virtue of Respect because it is necessary to honour and respect all of the human and the more-than-human world. Respect compels us to consider the responsibility we have toward future generations, all people and life on Earth, and the environment. If we have respect for all life – both present and future – we will act in a socially and environmentally responsible way. In the 7 Grandfather teachings, the Bison teaches us not to be hurtful to ourselves or others (Georgian College Aboriginal Resource Centre, 2014).


Accountability means taking ownership for one’s actions and accepting the consequences of those. It means acting in accordance with one’s beliefs. If we have respect for all life, being accountable leads us to right action. In leading for sustainability, we must be accountable to such frameworks as the Earth Charter and to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. A person who is accountable also takes responsibility for learning and for the development of skills and virtues.


Courage appears in different forms in all of the frameworks I examined. Courage is essential to LCfS because it allows us to take the risks necessary to innovate. It is associated with self-confidence, integrity, tenacity and perseverance. It takes courage to stand up for what you believe in and to be accountable to your principles. To be a change-maker requires the courage to act.


Without drive, we will have no action. We can have knowledge and empathy and a desire for change, but we need the passion, initiative, and vigour of Drive to make those changes happen.

A note on integrity and temperance

I intentionally left out some significant leader character strengths. Integrity seems almost universally identified as a leader character trait and I believe it is here, too. However, the qualities that it comprises are already represented in accountability, courage, respect and humility.

Temperance is an important strength as well, but if we are going to act for sustainability, it may be counterproductive to emphasize temperance. To be blunt, it’s not time for temperance. It’s time for action.


Crossan, M., Gandz, J., & Seijts, G. (2012). Developing leadership character. Ivey Business Journal.

Crossan, M., Mazutis, D., & Seijts, G. (2013). In search of virtue: The role of virtues, values and character strengths in ethical decision-making. The Journal of Business Ethics, 113(4), 567-581.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House .

Earth Charter International. (2000). The Earth Charter. Retrieved 11 27, 2016, from Earth Charter International :

Fullan, M., & Langworthy, M. (2014). A rich seam: How new pedagogies find deep learning. London: Pearson.

Georgian College Aboriginal Resource Centre. (2014). Ojibwe teachings – 7 Grandfather teachings. Retrieved 11 15, 2016, from Anishnaabeg Bimaadiziwin: An Ojibwe People’s Resource:–the-7-grandfathers.html

Hungerford, H. R., & Volk, T. L. (1990). Changing learner behaviour through environmental education. The journal of environmental education, 21(3), 8-21.

O’Brien, C. (2016). Education for sustainable happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Routledge.

O’Brien, C. (2016a). Sustainable well-being framework. Unpublished document shared through personal communication.

O’Brien, C., & Murray, S. E. (2015). Sustainable wellbeing, creativity and innovation. International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change, 2(1).


P21. (2016). Life and career skills. Retrieved 11 26, 2016, from Partnership for 21st Century Learning:

Peterson , C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and vitrues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seijts, G., Gandz, J., Crossan, M., & Reno, M. (2015). Character matters: Character dimensions’ impact on leader performance and outcomes. Organizational Dynamics, 44, 65-74.

United Nations. (2016). Sustainable development goals. Retrieved 11 26, 2016, from Sustainable Development Goals:

United Nations. (2016a). Sustainable development goals: Education: Goal 4 targets. Retrieved 11 26, 2016, from Sustainable Development Goals:

United Nations Economic Commisison for Europe. (2016). Education for sustainable development: The strategy. Retrieved 1 24, 2016, from UNECE:

World Economic Forum. (2015). New vision for education: Unlocking the potential of technology. Geneva: World Economic Forum.

Zhao, Y. (2012). World class learners: Educating creative and entrepreneurial students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.



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