There is a lady in my neighbourhood who walks the street looking like she needs directions.

She wears the cutest little bucket hat and sunglasses get-up and just genuinely looks like she needs help. The first time I met her she stopped me with a polite request ‘can I ask you a question’? Immediately I got ready to offer my best directions to the shopping centre as this is what lost folks in my area usually need help with but before I knew it she had started asking me my opinions on religion with no opportunity to reply. Not wanting to offend the lady by saying that the last thing on my mind mid-dog-walk is the question of our creator I politely listened. Over a couple of minutes she got increasingly aggressive with her line of questioning and I got uncomfortable. My beliefs are my own and not something that need debating on the street in the middle of the day. Making eyes down the footpath I politely mentioned that the dog needed some food and said goodbye to my bucket hat wearing friend despite her protests about my leaving. Every time I have seen her since I cross the street to avoid her for fear of a repeat incident. Rude but true.

The moral of the story?

No matter how passionately you believe in something there is a time, place, and delivery method for passing on your passion. While this lady might succeed at conveying her passion for her god with the occasional person in this manner, many people don’t really like having their belief systems shaken while walking down the footpath. I am one of them and can speak from personal experience on the ‘flip-side’ as someone who pounded the pavement as a Wilderness Society canvasser for a few months many years ago. Forcing your ideas on people in a busy shopping strip or knocking on their door at dinner time will result in drinks being thrown at you, the odd death threat, and all-round rudeness (and the occasional person signing up for your cause and/or buying you a fruit juice). The general idea about canvassing your beliefs on the street is best summed up by this clip.

One of my favourite sections from Lisa Heinze’s book ‘Sustainability With Style’ is her ‘Beefgate incident’. As someone with a newfound passion for sustainable living who had just discovered some the following scary stats about eating a steak:

  • One 150 Gram serve of meat takes 200 litres of water to produce
  • Deforestation caused by land clearing for food accounts of 18% of world wide deforestation and livestock account for 70% of this agricultural land usage.
  • Beef and dairy cattle production is responsible for 60% of livestock green house gas emissions.

While this is just a snippet of the issues associated with being a rampant carnivore (Lisa has more facts and stats in her book) it’s enough to justify Lisa’s decision to send an email request a beef free weekend getaway with  her friends, and suggesting they opt for kangaroo on the BBQ which is a more earth friendly meat to eat here in Australia. Needless to say not all appreciated Lisa’s knowledge sharing tactics and request for a moo-cow free eat-a-thon while on holiday. One member of her party send back a gruff email stating his dismay at her request that made Lisa feel like she didn’t know if she had ‘the strength to be an eco-warrior at all’.




We have all had days like this one Lisa experienced.

When we passionately share knowledge about something only to have the recipient of our communications look bored/angry/completely disinterested. I actually gave a speech at an event once talking about sustainable fashion that was an abysmal failure. First up I’m a pretty crappy public speaker. I can let loose in a tutorial class and be my  quirky self but put me in front of a new audience and I will get the job done but I’m not going to win any toast masters awards. Anyways, about a minute into this speech my audience looked like they were ready to nap or leap out the window. They were there for second hand clothing market, not a lecture on why secondhand clothing is better for the environment. My speech was the only thing that separated them from getting stuck into the shopping and their minds were already head first in a pile of secondhand accessories. Cutting my losses and my speech, I wrapped it up, shut up, and had a glass of wine.

While it’s easy to be disheartened when things don’t quite go as planned the only positive thing you can do in moments like these is accept that this wasn’t your audience and/or the time or manner in which to spread your passion.

Believe it or not you are a leader for sustainability.

According to a bunch of super smart academic types at the University of Cambridge ;

A leader is someone who can craft a vision and inspire people to act collectively to make it happen, responding to whatever changes and challenges arise along the way.”

Whether your message is aimed at millions, thousands, hundreds, or your immediate family, you have the opportunity to pass on your passion and inspire others to follow theirs. Have a bit of a look at this video below to understand the characteristics of leaders. While watching it have a think about what leadership characteristics you have to bring to the table when passing on your sustainability message.

Being a good leader requires many skills.

The video above outlines just some of the many skills that leaders require to do a damn good job of leading. I have included it here because it covers many aspects that are important when trying to convey environmental messages. I especially like the reference to empathy or understanding where people are coming from (which is important with touchy subject like beef consumption), being curious and not making assumptions, and becoming more mindful and noticing new things.  There are years and years worth of study into what makes a good leader, if in fact you can ‘make’ a good leader or if leaders have been born that way, and what traits that leaders need for effective leadership. I’m no expert on the topic (just a current student of a sustainability leadership course) and certainly don’t want to bore you with loads of academic papers.  What I will share with you is this.

People respect teachers who listen.

Being a dictator can be enjoyable, I love to boss my dog around (not that he listens all the time), but if you really want to get things done shut up and listen. Here are some interesting facts about listening from Forbes Leadership experts:

  • 85% of what we know we have learned through listening
  • Humans generally listen at a 25% comprehension rate
  • In a typical business day, we spend 45% of our time listening, 30% of our time talking, 16% reading and 9% writing
  • Less than 2% of all professionals have had formal education or learning to understand and improve listening skills and techniques

If the bucket hat wearing lady who approached me in the street to discuss all things religion had employed some listening strategies then there is a good chance she would have actively engaged me in conversation a little longer and may imparted some knowledge my way. Just like Lisa would have benefited from having a conversation with her friends over a steak rather than having a one way  steak-is-bad ‘dictation’ via email and rather than boring the heck out of shoppers at a second hand market I should have taken the time to engage them in conversations about their shopping and shared with them the benefits of second hand.

Good listening also links with being able to ask a good question. Many conversations end up one sided due one (or both) parties inability to ask effective questions. Perhaps bucket hat lady wasn’t versed in the ability to ask a probing question which is why our conversation ended up so one sided? Whatever the verdict, asking a decent question can be a learned art. If you haven’t had the opportunity to work retail sales (which is nearly all about asking the right questions and getting people talking) there is a good article on questioning here.

Leading by example

Lisa discovers throughout her sustainability journey that the best ways to get people interested in sustainability often require the least amount of effort. There is a quote by Rumi that sums up her (and my) experience quite nicely and you will notice I have used it many times before:

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.

If you start passionately following your own sustainability path and stop worrying about what others are doing then a surprising thing happens. People become interested. This fits in nicely with what Bill George mentions in the video above, that leadership is about character of leader and the person within. That a good leader find an authentic voice and authentic self and their power as a leader comes from an exploration of their own story, the difficult times they have experienced, and how this has developed their sense of purpose and passion.

What to do with all these interested parties?

If you do manage to end up with a bit of a sustainability following (be it family, friends, your community, or millions of folk all wanting to know about your mission) you can follow these simple steps to help them reach their full potential from Forbes contributor Glenn Llopis.

1.     Encourage  them to think and act in ways that come most naturally to them

A great leader doesn’t try to make you think like they do (sorry bucket hat lady, beefgate Lisa, and myself and my second hand clothing lecture). They embrace the natural ways you think and build off of your own strengths.

2.     Develop their decision-making abilities

A good leader knows how to evaluate a followers decision-making blind spots. They guide them rightly to identify the consequences and probability patterns of each decision,  problem solving becomes a treasure hunt of unforeseen opportunities. An important skill when navigating the minefield of sustainability related issues.

3.      Expand their performance tolerance threshold

A great leader keeps close tabs on how much each follower is able to handle. This is obviously easier in smaller groups than larger one but by working on the areas that require further attention and development (like reminding your kids to turn off the lights when not in the room) they will learn how to be able to rise to any occasion on their own. With the right guidance from leadership these ‘followers’ will develop habit and passion for the sustainability cause organically over time.

4.      Strengthen  potential by surrounding it with those even stronger

Being a leader without a support network is a pretty tough gig. Getting involved with the right groups, resources, and support networks takes the pressure off you (and avoids you becoming a dictator) and helps to encourage passion and resourcefulness in those who are interested in your cause.

This is all well and good but what if I don’t know what I want to do?

Sustainability covers so many areas. Moving forward with an ever increasing population we need to become better at doing things across the board. From greener laundry powder to re-constructing society there is a need for innovation and leadership on every scale in every industry. It can be overwhelming to think of all the areas that you could potentially make a difference but starting with one area of personal passion is going to be most effective.

If you don’t believe me believe Simon Sinek. His TED talk (above) had me in tears. I was introduced to it in the first weeks of study this semester and it was a relief. When you are passionately trying to be a force of good on the planet and have somehow managed to end up with some lovely folk following your journey (thank you blog readers) it can be a little bit intimidating to think ‘what the heck am I actually doing’? In fact I get asked daily ‘what are you doing this for’ (especially in regards to my sustainability education passion) and people expect me to have some kind of ten year professional career plan laid out in front of me when truthfully I am just following my passion and my heart (my why and my how) and seeing where the ‘what’ takes me. For a long time the unknown bothered me. I felt like I should have a plan. However, Simon’s talk allowed me to free myself from worrying about my what and let me rest in knowing that my Why and How are fully sorted.  So even if you don’t have any idea what you want to do there is a good chance you are passionate about something. Follow that passion! The rest will work itself out as you go.

Hopefully this little interlude on sharing your passion has left you with some food for thought. Whether your keen to share a passion for organic cotton socks, women’s rights, or a love of your spirituality, honing in on your leadership skills and leading by example will take you places you cannot fathom! And to my bucket hat wearing friend, if you want to talk religion with me can we make a time and place for the discussion? I feel so bad about running in the opposite direction when I see you in the street.

Please share all your thoughts, experience, and resources for sustainability and leadership below. We all know how valuable a conversation can be.


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