Sustainability Leadership and Boards: A Conceptual Framework




sustainability, leadership, sustainability leadership, boards, conceptual framework


Sustainability demands boards to be intrinsically motivated. Translating the sustainability agenda into measurable social and environmental outcomes implies a behavioral transformation on the individual, group, and organizational levels. Focusing only on regulatory requirements, ESG metrics, and corporate reputation does not lead to the genuine commitment of board members to enhance the organization’s sustainability. Embedding sustainability into the organization’s business model and strategy calls for the board’s commitment and impactful actions. Therefore, this study attempts to provide new insights on how boards could enhance their sustainability engagement and performance by developing and demonstrating specific leadership behaviors. For this purpose, a literature review has been conducted. To draw on the premises of stakeholder theory and selected leadership constructs, the method of theory synthesis was used. This study builds on and extends the existing leadership and corporate governance literature by providing a conceptual framework that links sustainability leadership and board dimensions: purpose and authenticity, power and responsibility, and process and transformation. It proposes the initial assessment questions for each dimension. The proposed conceptual and assessment frameworks offer practical implications for various stakeholders. Board members can use them as self-assessment and development tools that can enhance their sustainability engagement and leadership behaviors. Based on these frameworks, human resources management could define sustainability competencies to be considered in board recruitment, assessment, development, and succession. Leadership and organizational development specialists could also use these guidelines to design and implement sustainability leadership development programs. By offering a novel perspective that links sustainability efforts and leadership behaviors of boards, these research contributions could inspire organizations to move beyond compliance-oriented sustainability toward genuine sustainability. Future research could be directed at validating the proposed conceptual framework by conducting qualitative and quantitative studies to explore the board members’ perceptions and views on specific leadership behaviors in the context of the sustainability agenda.