Educational contexts and designs for cultivating leaders capable of addressing the wicked issues of sustainability transitions.

Blekinge Institute of Technology

Publication Release Date: Oct. 30, 2020
Date Posted: May 4, 2021
Submitted by: Tessie Devlin
Sustainability Topic: Curriculum
Content Type: Publications
Publisher: Karlskrona: Blekinge Tekniska Högskola
Periodical Name: Blekinge Institute of Technology Licentiate Dissertation Series
Type: Graduate Student Research


The ongoing sustainability crisis offer numerous, multifaced societal challenges as a result of the ongoing degradation of socio-ecological systems by human activity causing massive ecological damage and human suffering. Overcoming these difficulties begs for the rapid transition of society towards sustainability. This desire for urgent action has been hindered by the lack of coordinated global leadership focused on addressing these challenges and implementing a transition towards a sustainable future. The sustainability crisis and its manifestations, which include for example climate change, air and water pollution, deforestation and social segregation, are interconnected and volatile issues whose parts influence and impact each other causing the crisis to worsen. The earth system is pushed towards tipping points from beyond which it may become impossible to maintain the human civilization. The failure of leadership to address the wicked nature of these crises means humanity has been left ill-equipped to deal with the complex problems of sustainability.

This thesis considers the role of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in overcoming these issues and operating as a leverage point towards sustainability. It focuses on investigating how the development of sustainability leadership education in Higher Education can contribute to addressing the sustainability crisis. It looks at the role that educators can play in designing learning environments that ensure leaders and leadership capable of addressing wicked problems posed by global unsustainability. The aim of this research is to investigate what educators should consider when designing learning environments that promote the qualities needed for leading in complexity towards sustainability. It does this by examining a number of ESD programs as case studies to investigate the efficacy of those programs at creating sustainability outcomes within their students. It also undertakes a literature review to describe and articulate the unique challenges faced by sustainability leaders from a personal and professional perspective. The study is situated closely to the ongoing ESD discussion regarding competencies-based learning for sustainability and the research aims to provide some contribution to that dialogue. It does this through the investigation of competencies acquisition and the discussion of emerging areas of leadership that may hold beneficial outcomes for the development and practice of sustainability leaders.

The results of the thesis suggest a number of outcomes for consideration by educators and include a number of main findings. Firstly, educational programs can be capable of achieving the acquisition of ‘sustainability’ competencies within their students, but if these competencies are not taught within a larger sustainability contextualization, then students can fail to see the purpose of the competencies ‘for’ sustainability. Secondly, reflective practices, developed as the result of reflective pedagogies, can provide beneficial qualities in students as future sustainability leaders and require distinct pedagogical structures in order to guide reflective practices towards sustainability outcomes. Finally, a number of unique personal and professional challenges to sustainability leadership exist and need to be overcome if the domain of sustainability is to ensure the ongoing resilience and wellbeing of individuals and groups acting as sustainability leaders.

This research suggests a novel contribution to a number of areas within ESD research, including creating knowledge within the competencies discussion regarding emerging areas of study that may influence the future of defined sustainability competencies. It also highlights the need for educators to consider the role of wellbeing and resilience in current and future sustainability leaders.