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Spotlight on a Unique Master's Program

This international Master’s in Strategic Leadership Toward Sustainability program in Sweden cultivates powerful agents of organizational change.

By Amy Nelson

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As we strive for sustainability while grappling with climate change, poverty, violence, food security, and other global threats, the need for leaders in whole-systems planning and problem solving has never been greater. These leaders must not only create, engage, and inspire, but collaborate — across disciplines, cultures, and political borders. Where will we find the next generation leaders we so desperately need?

Chances are, many are at Sweden’s Blekinge Institute of Technology (Blekinge Tekniska Hogsköla – BTH), where a relatively new postgraduate program is developing a growing, international cadre of change agents. The Masters in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability (MSLS) program at BTH prepares graduates for careers in which they can not only apply a proven framework for organizational change toward sustainability, but inspire, lead, and transform organizations, industries, and perhaps even nations.

The MSLS program was initiated by BTH Professor Göran Broman and Swedish scientist Karl-Henrik Robèrt, founder of The Natural Step, a global network committed to advancing sustainability. The Natural Step promotes the use of its five-level Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development (FSSD), a strategic planning method, applicable at multiple scales, which is based on first identifying your version of sustainable success in the future, and then “backcasting” to the present to devise flexible, strategic steps that move you in that direction.

According to sustainability expert David Waldron, the “lead architect” of the MSLS program, “Karl-Henrik wanted to bring [The Natural Step’s] structure, clarity, and rigor around the concept of sustainability…to a group of people who could engage in it beyond a just few days or weeks, and use it to become leaders.” With a go-ahead from BTH to initiate a Master’s program toward that objective given in 2003, Robèrt sought Waldron’s help in designing it. Waldron, who had previously partnered with The Natural Step to create a sustainability framework and program for the Canadian resort town of Whistler, felt the program needed more than the FSSD.

“It doesn’t matter what you know about sustainability science, strategy, structure, and logic if people aren’t engaged” said Waldron. “I knew that organizational learning, organizational change and leadership development would be fundamental to the program if we wanted to train leaders who could actually lead.” Dr. Göran Carstedt became an invaluable advisor to the program, in this respect. He brought his extensive understanding of leadership from his successful career as a corporate executive and his leadership roles with The Natural Step and The Society for Organizational Learning to inform these aspects of the program.

Ten intensive months later (September 2004), after developing curriculum, writing a textbook, and recruiting students and guest professors, Waldron, Robèrt, Broman and the MSLS staff welcomed the program’s first class: 41 students representing 16 countries and every continent, with backgrounds ranging from biology to business. The 2013 class is no less diverse, with members including a financial journalist from India, a Hungarian soldier, an aspiring politician from Cameroon, and an Austrian kindergarten teacher.

The nine-month MSLS program is broken into four periods. During the first two periods, students become familiar with each other, the local community of Karlskrona, and the FSSD. This is done through coursework, group activities, and outings.

The activities and outings, which include field trips, public lectures and café talks, and even group dinners, often stand out as some of the students’ most memorable and meaningful experiences.

“I had a great time travelling to Ireland with MSLS colleagues to facilitate a sustainability planning process for the Enniscorthy Enterprise Centre, a non-profit focused on business development and education,” said Nathan Stinnette (MSLS class of 2010), now a sustainability consultant whose recent work included helping NASA’s Kennedy Space Center develop a sustainability plan. “After meeting with the Centre’s director, board members, and community, stakeholders, we helped put together an Action Plan to achieve its sustainability goals,” he said. “We also survived an epic flood, drank some Guinness, and got to do a bit of sightseeing.”

During the last two periods of the MSLS program, students work in groups of three, applying their knowledge of the FSSD and their leadership skills to an actual business, community or project, and produce a final thesis. Completed theses, which can be viewed on the MSLS web site, have ranged from transportation in Shanghai to the potential role of the International Olympic Committee in a socio-environmental movement, to the use of SSD towards conflict resolution.

Woven throughout the MSLS program are two key themes: the FSSD itself (the science-based, strategic approach for planning towards sustainability); and organizational learning and leadership (practicing leadership to effectively create change towards sustainability). How does the program balance these themes? “One theme is the science – it is left-brain, rational, and structured,” said Waldron. “The other theme is the art – of engaging, inspiring, and leading. We don’t actually want to balance, or compromise, these themes; we want to create synergies by combining them in new ways.”

But can the ability to inspire really be taught? “Some will argue that you are either born a leader or you are not…and others will argue that you can learn leadership skills over time,” said Waldron. “Peter Senge [scientist, author, and founder of the Society for Organizational Learning] suggests that leadership can be learned, but not taught, and we agree.” Waldron explains, “Our philosophy is to provide role models, high quality curriculum and tools, and create the conditions for leaders to emerge.” This is done primarily through project-based work in groups.

How do you know if a student has mastered leadership? What does it look like? To Waldron, leadership is “the ability to issue an invitation and get people to show up; to ask powerful questions that can stimulate creative thinking and human energy; and to honor those who show up with gratitude and humility.”

A peek into the professional portfolios of people like Nathan Stinnette and other MSLS graduates indicates the program is working. Georges Dyer (MSLS class of 2006) is a strategic advisor with Second Nature, a non-profit working to create a sustainable society by transforming higher education. Georges and his wife Michelle, also a 2006 MSLS graduate, were instrumental in the launch and tremendous growth of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). Almost immediately upon completing the MSLS program, with only twelve university presidents’ commitments secured for the ACUPCC, the Dyers hit the ground running. They engaged more presidents to join, delivered annual conferences, developed guidance resources, raised funds, formed a Steering Committee and more partnerships, and designed a reporting framework and online system. After only a few years, the ACUPCC network expanded from 12 to more than 670 institutions.

Dyer acknowledges the impact of the MSLS program on his ability to successfully build the ACUPCC network. “The ACUPCC is at its essence a leadership initiative,” said Dyer, ‘”and its design and implementation stem from the concepts covered in the [MSLS] program, such as the need for scientifically appropriate sustainability goals (in this case climate neutrality), top-level leadership (a public commitment by presidents), a strategic framework for planning in complexity (a common commitment—with sufficient flexibility so each institution can plan based on its own unique circumstances—that includes a compelling, long-range vision and opportunities for concrete steps that are achievable in the short-term. [The MSLS program] provided us with both the ‘hard’ skills and ‘soft’ skills for being effective change agents.”

So how much does it cost to become a change agent through the MSLS program at BTH? For some, it’s no more than living expenses. Tuition for students with citizenship within the EU/EEA and Switzerland is fully sponsored by the Swedish government. For those outside the EU/EEA and Switzerland, tuition is 100,000 SEK (approx. $15,800 USD) but BTH also offers and promotes the availability of many scholarships, including some created by MSLS graduates.

What is certain is that the price we will all pay for a lack of future leaders in sustainability is unfathomable. But a lack of leadership is not likely if more programs like BTH’s Master’s in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability start appearing in more universities around the world.

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