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Gazzara to Future Sustainability Leaders: Embrace Failure, Avoid 'Analysis Paralysis'

Image credit: Phil Russell

Kevin GazzaraArizona State University’s School of Sustainability recently launched the Executive Master’s for Sustainability Leadership (EMSL), a 13-month program designed for mid-career professionals currently employed in or near sustainability roles. The program features a hybrid curriculum of virtual learning and immersive, in-person experiences at ASU and abroad.

The EMSL also differentiates itself from more traditional MBA and Sustainable MBA programs by incorporating a systems-thinking approach, with the curriculum, assignments and readings for the four threads fully integrated.

As Dr. Kevin Gazzara, former Management and Leadership Program Manager at Intel and head of the EMSL Leadership track explains, “When you’re talking about sustainability, you have to use systems thinking to ensure that an advantage you’re providing in one part of the system is not at the disadvantage of another part of the system.”

We spoke with Dr. Gazzara about the importance of leadership in sustainability and the traits that define a great leader in today’s globalized and fast-talking world.

AL: How do you create great leaders to make real global change?

KG: There are lots of people who are passionate about sustainability today. There are a lot of smart people in the field with a great depth of knowledge. However, what we continue to see is that it all comes down to leaders getting the ears and hearts of those around them in order to make a positive impact in the world. Good leaders need to have a solid content foundation and the ability to talk beyond their little sandbox.

With today’s speed of communication, the “one great man” myth is no longer practical. It is less about what the leader does and more about what the leader does to build the coalition. Things are just too complex today. You can’t do it all. You look at the Arab Spring and how it all started with a single individual who was able to recognize when the world was ready for a change and others immediately jumped on, until the sum became much greater than the parts. The speed of communication has really changed the way leaders have to act.

We also teach our students about the importance of understanding yourself first. The best leaders are the ones most in touch with themselves. If you can understand yourself, you can understand others, and you can start taking the steps necessary to initiate and sustain change.

In 2008, you published a book called The Leader of Oz, on how to transform a complacent and conflicted workplace to one that embodies inspiration and empowerment. How would you include sustainability in that? How has the role of leaders in the workplace changed in the last six years? What would you say differently today?

That book uses the story of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz as a parable for the workplace. It doesn’t specifically include a sustainability thread, but it easily could. We see the value of bringing others along on the journey and tapping into collective strengths. That’s the Wiz story and the story of sustainability. A scarecrow, a cowardly lion and a tin man probably would not be your first choice for travel companions, but they each played an important role. When implementing sustainability, we are given the environment and a lot of times it’s what we do with what we’re given. The sooner we can establish it’s our problem — not your problem or my problem — the better.

Who are the thought leaders or brands that you personally turn to for inspiration? Who do you think is doing an especially good job and why?

I immediately think of Patagonia and Tom’s of Maine for obvious reasons. I also think Dell is forward-thinking and influencing others to do the same. The Walton Foundation is also doing some great work.

One thing I learned at Intel is that they took safety and the environment exceptionally seriously. I started in 1989 and they didn’t call it “sustainability” then. It was about doing the right thing. Intel decided early on to voluntarily impose California’s high labor standards on all of their global factories. The feeling was we’re doing it because it’s the right thing, not because we have to. It is the general philosophy of a great company. I always advise my students: Work for a company that you’d be proud to work for.

Do you have any advice on how to operationalize all this?

I recommend a rapid prototyping model. Don’t spend massive amounts of time picking a leadership model. Pick one and start doing it! I think a lot of sustainability leaders get stuck in analysis paralysis. I say: Get out there and do it!

I will sometimes ask my students, “Who likes to fail?” Of course, only a few hands go up. I ask, “Who likes to learn?” more hands go up. Then, I ask, “Do you learn from your failures?” and everyone’s hands go up. You know where I’m going with this.

When you don’t allow yourself to fail, your growth as a leader will likely take a slow continuous slope. When you do allow yourself to fail and learn, your growth will be exponential. Look for opportunities to fail without being catastrophic. Imagine a juggler with balls of plastic and balls of glass. Keep your eye closest to the glass ball, but allow yourself to drop the other ones so that you learn how to pick them up and keep going.


Anna is an Insight Development Research Associate for Sustainable Brands. As part of the Content Team she researches trends in sustainability and assists in program development for our conferences. She brings a decade of media and community organizing experience, a… [Read more about Anna Lui]


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