My first attempts to affect “sustainability” occurred when I was a principal in large schools, trying to administer grant funds with fidelity. Almost all grants are framed as “seed money” for launching some kind initiative or process. Grant requirements usually stipulate that the initiative or process should be self-sustaining after the seed money is gone. In effect, the grant money is intended to create the conditions for self-perpetuating growth.
In recent years my interaction with the word “sustainability” has been directed toward ecological sustainability. Moe (my lovely bride of 36 years) and I have come to believe that, as stewards of the land, we are responsible for creating the conditions in which the very basis of the land is healthy and vibrant. Though raising healthy cattle is the desired outcome, our work and attention must be focused at a much deeper level. We are compelled to learn and understand the mineral and microbial conditions underneath the surface of the land. We must attend to the soil’s health first. If we successfully accomplish that, then the growth of flora and animal life above the surface follows naturally and vigorously.
These two conceptions of sustainable practice are fundamentally the same, though the contexts are quite different.
Organizational sustainability is ONLY accomplished when leaders attend to the health and well-being of the most basic elements of the organization (i.e., the “soil”). While powerful outcomes are always the desired end game, they only emerge if we have created the conditions of “health” at the most basic levels of the organization, below the surface.
Those health-generating conditions can be fostered by focusing on two important factors:
- Through leaders knowing and understanding the contexts.
- Through leaders building and nurturing strong relationships, both with the internal and external customers of the organization.
Think of that knowing, understanding, building, and nurturing as being the critical nutrients and vitamins that provide the basis of organizational health. Just a different kind of “soil building.”