Sustainability And The Search For The Common Good

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Written by Dr Samuel Wilson

Serious cracks are beginning to appear in the capacity of our communities and ecosystems to sustain our well-being (Lovelock, 2009). In the context of concerns about the end of a safe operating space for humanity (Steffen et al., 2015), there are strong calls for human societies to evolve to preserve the social and ecological systems that undergird human civilisation. As our understanding of the value of these interlocking systems has increased, so too has our shared appreciation of the need to acknowledge and address what Barry (2012) aptly called ‘actually existing unsustainability’ and discover more sustainable ways of living within our planetary boundaries. Accordingly, leadership scholars have sounded the call for greater sustainability and sustainability leadership (Goldman Schuyler, Baugher & Jironet, 2016; Redekop, 2010; Scharmer & Kaufer, 2013).

However, the concept of sustainability is paradoxical. On one hand, it has the quality of being familiar and commonplace. Yet, on the other hand, it is difficult to articulate in a precise or comprehensive way. For example, when we reflect on the interlocking pillars of environment, economy, and society, we quickly discover that sustainability is more complex, expansive, and elusive than we initially imagined. Similarly, the concept of sustainability leadership or, better, leadership for sustainability, resists easy definition. Instead of the typical noun plus adjective combination that characterises most approaches to leadership, leadership for sustainability foregrounds its object—namely, ensuring the ability of people to co-exist on Earth over a long time. Thus, while specific styles of leadership may be recruited in the service of leadership for sustainability, it is neither reducible to nor synonymous with any specific style.

Scholars of sustainability often reference the concept of the ‘common good’. This is evident, for example, in injunctions for people to adopt a ‘common good mindset’ (Tavanti & Wilp, 2021) or to act for the common good to foster sustainability. In the context of leadership, this injunction is exemplified by the metaphor of honeybee and the beehive, and corresponding beehive approaches to sustainability leadership (Avery & Bergsteiner, 2011). However, despite this, the common good dimension of sustainability is rarely examined (Tavanti & Wilp, 2021) and when it is examined, its meaning is often taken for granted and assumed to be self-evident. Moreover, when definitions of the common good are offered, they are typically narrow or partial, reflecting a specific school of thought or ideology, ignoring the uncertainty and contest regarding its meaning.

However, as revealed by centuries of writing about the common good, its meaning is not self-evident. Developing an appreciation of this complexity is of central importance to addressing unsustainability and fostering sustainability. Here’s why.

First, in complex, pluralistic societies, there is no single, determinate common good (Sluga, 2014) but rather a diversity of often-competing conceptions of the common good (Mansbridge, 2013). In an illuminating grand sweep of millennia of thought in the topic of the common good, Sluga (2014) writes:

“…we can envisage the common good in very different ways, as high and low, as wide and narrow. We can speak of this common good in the language of justice, of freedom, security, order, morality, happiness, individual well-being, prosperity, progress and what have you. We can, moreover, envisage the community for which the good is sought in different ways: as tribal, local, national, international, or even global, as egalitarian or hierarchical in its order, as traditional or freely constituted, as unified or divided. And we can finally envisage the search itself in various ways: as organised or spontaneous, as guided or cooperative, as deliberate or merely implicit, as successful or thwarted” (p. 2).

This plurality of perspectives on the common good is obscured when we refer to the social pillar of the sustainability as ‘social’ but apparent when we unfold it to reveal ‘politics, ethics and culture’.

Second, people’s conceptions of the common good influence how they perceive human nature (Pojman, 2006) and organise and justify social relations (Verweij et al., 2006). Interestingly, decades of anthropological research have revealed that, beneath the rich diversity of human cultures and ways of life, human activities and ‘ways of life’ are patterned by a limited set of basic social and cultural modes (Fiske, 1992) or forms (Verweij et al., 2006): egalitarianism, hierarchy, individualism, and fatalism. These distinct ways of organising and justifying social relations, which reflect distinct conceptions of the common good and theories about how the common good ought to be realised, also affect how people make sense of and attempt to solve the problems encountered in the world, including problems of sustainability (Verweij et al., 2006).

Third, although each perspective on the common good is partial and incomplete, and often exists in uncomfortable tension with other perspectives, each perspective nevertheless contains wisdom that is lacking in the others (Verweij et al., 2006). Crucially, each time one of these perspectives on the common good is excluded from collective decision-making about wicked problems in ‘shared power contexts’—defined as contexts in which no one is in charge (Crosby & Bryson, 1992)—governance failure inevitably results (Verweij et al., 2006). This insight is of crucial importance to attempts to address unsustainability and helps to explain why previous international attempts have failed (see, e.g., Verweij, 2006).

Finally, because successful solutions to complex or wicked problems tend to involve creative, experimental combinations of these competing perspectives (Grint, 2010; Verweij et al., 2006), leadership and governance for the common good—and, by extension, leadership and governance for sustainability—must necessarily tolerate and accept the tensions and paradoxes of the common good as normal, rather than deviant, and reconceive the tensions and paradoxes of the common good  as opportunities to be embraced rather than problems to be solved (Bolden, Witzel & Linacre, 2016).

Shared power contexts, which aptly characterises the contexts in which all sustainability challenges are encountered, calls on all stakeholders involved to hold their worldviews and preferred diagnoses and treatments more lightly and, better, to suspend them, as if from a string for dispassionate contemplation, as Kahane and colleagues (2004, 2012, 2021) have learned from decades of helping communities and societies solve their tough problems. The corollary of this is to eschew ‘elegant’ solutions—those that reflect the insights and perspectives of single worldviews and perspectives on the common good—and instead embrace ‘clumsy’ solutions, which better reflect the messy reality of the search the common good in complex, pluralistic societies (Verweij et al., 2006).


Avery, G., & Bergsteiner, H. (2011). Sustainable leadership : honeybee and locust approaches. Routledge.

Barry, J. (2012). The politics of actually existing unsustainability: Human flourishing in a climate-changed, carbon constrained world. Oxford University Press.

Bolden, R., Witzel, M., & Linacre, N. (Eds.) (2016). Leadership paradoxes: Rethinking leadership for an uncertain world. Routledge.

Crosby, B., & Bryson, J. M. (1992). Leadership for the common good: Tackling public problems in a shared-power world (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Fiske, A. P. (1992). The four elementary forms of sociality: framework for a unified theory of social relations. Psychological Review, 99(4), 689–723.

Goldman Schuyler, K., Baugher J. E., & Jironet, K. (Eds.). (2016). Creative social change: leadership for a healthy world. Emerald.

Grint, K. (2010). The cuckoo clock syndrome: Addicted to command, allergic to leadership. European Management Journal, 28, 306-313.

Kahane, A. (2004). Solving tough problems: An open way of talking, listening, and creating new realities. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Kahane, A. (2012). Transformative scenario planning: Working together to change the future. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Kahane, A. (2021). Facilitating breakthrough: How to remove obstacles, bridge differences, and move forward together. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Lovelock, J. (2009). The vanishing face of Gaia. Allen Lane.

Mansbridge. J. (2013). Common good. International Encyclopedia of Ethics.

Pojman, L. P. (2006). Who are we? Theories of human nature. Oxford University Press.

Redekop, B. W. (Ed.). (2010). Leadership for environmental sustainability. Routledge.

Scharmer, O., & Kaufer, K. (2013). Leading from the emerging future: From ego-system to eco-system economies. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Sluga, H. (2014). Politics and the Search for the Common Good. Cambridge University Press.

Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., et al. (2015, February 13). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347, 736.

Tavanti, M., & Wilp, E.A. (2021). Common Good Mindset: The Public Dimensions of Sustainability. In A. A. Ritz & I. Rimanoczy (Eds) Sustainability Mindset and Transformative Leadership (pp. 241-265). Palgrave Macmillan.

Verweij, M. (2006). Is the Kyoto Protocol merely irrelevant, or positively harmful, for the efforts to curb climate change? In M. Verweij & M. Thompson (Eds), Clumsy Solutions for a Complex World (pp. 31-60). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Verweij, M., Douglas, M., Ellis, R., Engel, C., Hendriks, F., Lohmann, S., Ney, S., Rayner, S., & Thompson, M. (2006). The case for clumsiness. In M. Verweij & M. Thompson (Eds), Clumsy Solutions for a Complex World (pp. 1-27). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

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