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Increasingly, education organisations are addressing environmental sustainability issues by modelling ecologically sound practices and supporting the integration of sustainability into the management practices and curriculum. With greater than ever scrutiny of learning and teaching activities by internal and external stakeholders, ensuring the quality of learning and teaching means addressing issues of sustainable leadership. In this blog, we examine the importance of sustainable leadership practices within education and, in particular, propose that there are potential benefits if institutions are more actively engaged in sustainable leadership practices around learning and teaching.


The founder of the theory of Sustainable leadership in education is Dr. Andy Hargreaves. Presently, Andy Hargreaves is the President of the International Congress of School Effectiveness and Improvement and is known as one of the top global thought leaders in education. Dr. Hargreaves has authored or edited over 30 books, several of which have achieved outstanding writing awards. One of them, Sustainable Leadership, written in the co-authorship with Dean Fink addresses one of the most important and often neglected aspects of leadership: sustainability.


The authors set out a compelling and original framework of seven principles for sustainable leadership characterized by:

  1. Depth of learning and real achievement rather than superficially tested performance; 
  2. Length of impact over the long haul, beyond individual leaders, through effectively managed succession; 
  3. Breadth of influence, where leadership becomes a distributed responsibility; 
  4. Justice in ensuring that leadership actions do no harm to and actively benefit students in other schools; 
  5. Diversity that replaces standardization and alignment with diversity and cohesion; 
  6. Resourcefulness that conserves and renews leaders' energy and doesn't burn them out;
  7. Conservation that builds on the best of the past to create an even better future.


The main responsibility that all education leaders have created a learning system that engages students intellectually, emotionally, and socially. Sustainable leadership therefore goes beyond the temporary gains in achievement scores to create long-lasting, meaningful improvements in learning processes. Let us look at the particular principles that define sustainable leadership:

1. Sustainable Leadership Lasts

One of the major characteristics of sustainable leadership is that it involves planning and preparing for succession – not just as an afterthought, but from the first day of the school leader’s appointment. Sustainable leadership requires that leaders pay serious attention to leadership succession. This can be achieved through grooming successors for them to continue with reforms, and keeping successful leaders in schools much longer, especially if they are making great strides in promoting learning. It also involves resisting the urge to search for “irreplaceable charismatic heroes” to become the saviors of schools, including succession in all district and school improvement plans, and slowing the rate of principal turnover.

2. Sustainable Leadership Spreads

A suitable way for leaders to leave a lasting legacy in their schools is to ensure that they share and help develop their vision with other school actors. Leadership succession in this sense therefore means more than grooming one’s successor. It actually means distributing leadership throughout the school through its professional community so that others can carry the torch of school improvement after the current principal is gone. Sustainable leadership cannot just be the responsibility of one person. The school is a highly complex institution, and no one leader can control everything without assistance. In summary, sustainable leadership is and must be a shared responsibility, if it is to be carried out with success.

3. Sustainable Leadership Is Socially Just

Another aspect of sustainable leadership is that it aims to benefit all students and schools. Sustainable leadership is conscious of the fact that the magnet, lighthouse, and charter schools and their leaders effect surrounding schools. It is also sensitive to privileged communities “poaching” from the local leadership pool. Sustainable leadership recognizes and takes full responsibility for the fact that schools affect each other in interlinked webs of mutual influence. In this aspect, and in knowing the above facts, sustainability is tied to social justice.

Sustainable leadership is not just about maintaining improvement in one’s own school. School leaders who truly care about sustainability should accept responsibility for the schools and students and be aware that their actions have an effect on the wider environment.

4. Sustainable Leadership Is Resourceful

The systems of sustainable leadership provide certain intrinsic rewards while at the same time offering external incentives that attract, motivate, and retain the best and brightest in the leadership pool. These systems provide time and opportunity for school leaders to network, support, and learn from one another, while at the same time coaching and mentoring their successors. Sustainable leadership carefully utilizes its resources to develop the talents of its educators, instead of lavishing rewards on selected proven leaders. The systems of sustainable leadership take care of leaders while encouraging them to take care of themselves. Eventually, leadership is only sustainable when it sustains the leaders themselves.

5. Sustainable Leadership Promotes Diversity

Leaders who promote sustainability prepare and recreate environments that stimulate continuous improvement on a broad level. They enable people to adapt and prosper in increasingly complex environments by learning from each other’s diverse practices. Most innovative schools create and promote this diversity.
Sustainable leadership does not impose standardized templates on entire communities.

6. Sustainable Leadership Is Activist

Standardization has increased the problems that traditional schools had. Moreover, formerly innovative schools have lost their edge. In an unhelpful environment, sustainable leadership must include some sort of activism. Leaders must be willing to pursue improvement for their schools, even if it means being labeled as difficult.

7. Systems Must Support Sustainable Leadership

Most inspiring school leaders do more than manage change – they actively pursue and model a form of sustainable leadership. The measure of developing sustainability is the commitment to and protection of deep learning in schools by attempting to ensure that school improvements last over time, especially after the charismatic leaders have left. by distributing leadership and responsibility, considering the impact of their leadership on schools and communities in their neighborhood, avoiding stress and burnout, promoting and bringing about diverse approaches to school reform , and activism, leaders develop sustainability.

While most school leaders want to achieve the goals that matter and inspire others so as to leave a lasting legacy, they are often not responsible for their school’s failure. Most of the blame rests with the systems in which they lead. To institute change that matters, spreads, and lasts, we must ensure that the systems in which leaders work make sustainability a priority.

These principles guide leaders through the many different factors involved in creating a high quality learning environment for all students, that will sustain itself for many years and over the course of many leaders. The authors draw comparisons to environmental sustainability and sustainable business practices, with practices that are prevalent in education – and utilize these comparisons to discuss what direction school leadership should be going in order to create lasting, positive change in leadership practices.

Information about the author:

dr. Julija Melnikova

Senior researcher

Klaipeda University

EPALE ambassador since 2016

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