Follow the Impact Leader

January 15, 2020
December 2019

Dame Polly is the Director of the Institute for Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambridge. Dame Polly leads business and policy leadership groups, as well as executive and graduate programs for private and public sector leaders to advance solutions to the greatest challenges facing global sustainable development.

How did you come to be interested in sustainability?

I grew up on a small farm in South Africa on the slopes of Table Mountain, one of the world’s great natural wonders. My childhood there instilled in me a deep love of the environment and an acute awareness of issues of social justice. It was only later, in the early 1990’s that I encountered the powerful notion of sustainable development, which helped me to make some sense of the tensions that I had grown up with in South Africa: between economic growth, human development and environmental protection. By then I was working at Cambridge University helping businesses to understand and respond to a rapidly changing world, to the forces of globalisation and the rising tide of dissatisfaction with the worst excesses of shareholder capitalism at the expense of society and the environment. The Rio Earth Summit of 1992 was a real catalyst for action on sustainable development, although the involvement of business in setting the agenda had only been marginal. Shortly thereafter I was approached by The Prince of Wales, who had long been deeply concerned about social and environmental justice and wanted to help business leaders understand this new agenda and respond accordingly. This led to the establishment of what is now our flagship programme for senior executives - The Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme - which seeks a convergence between profitability and sustainability. Amongst other things, it tackled head-on issues such as climate change, biodiversity, human rights, poverty and development and the state of the planet and its people. These might seem commonplace in business discussions today but they were new and edgy topics for business to factor into their strategic thinking in those days and the debates were lively and fascinating.

In your mission of connecting senior leaders from business and government to explore the link between sustainability and profitability, what are the most significant findings that have come out of that search so far?

Our role in those days was the same as it is now: to challenge and support leaders to respond to the evidence before us; to make decisions based on the latest and best science; and to build business models that create value not just for shareholders but long-term value for society and the environment. Today we run many more executive and graduate programmes and host business and policy leadership groups that develop solutions to some of the most intractable challenges we face. We now have an influential network of over 9,000 alumni and other leaders across the private and public sectors who understand the need for change and are inspired to find solutions. Over the past three decades we have seen enormous progress as the corporate sector has responded to the demands from society to clean up its act. Strategies and policies now exist in many companies to set targets, measure impact and report on progress. The ever-widening agenda, clarified in 2015 by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, is pressing companies not just to report on their carbon footprint, but also on their impact on water, soil and biodiversity and equality to account for their contribution to human wellbeing and social justice. There is a very long way to go and progress is patchy, but there is a growing understanding that business as usual is just not an option and that there are huge opportunities for companies that seize the opportunity – estimated to be worth $12 trillion by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission. But at the same time, it is clear that there is a limit to what individuals or organisations can achieve on their own, operating within a system that is so often driven by short termism and paralysed by inertia rather than designed to prioritise long-term sustainability. The need to bring about change at a more systemic level has led to a different dimension of our work where we support leaders in working more collaboratively with peers and competitors, clients and suppliers and with policy makers and communities to develop solutions by ‘changing the rules of the game.’ If we are to transform our economy at a fundamental level to address climate change, ecosystem destruction and inequality, then it will take systems-level change and a combination of collective will and collective action from leaders in business, finance and government pulling in the same direction.

What made you want to work with Cambridge University? What can other universities learn from them with regards to sustainability research?

I did my undergraduate degree at Cambridge and was able to see first-hand the extraordinary range of insight and expertise that existed there that was relevant to sustainable development. As the Institute developed, we were fortunate in being able to draw on that breadth and depth, both in terms of teaching for our executives and in providing the evidence base to support senior decision-makers. Last year we set up The Prince of Wales Global Sustainability Fellowship Programme to attract academics from around the world to collaborate with peers, companies and policymakers to identify breakthrough solutions to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The aim is to help mobilise global evidence on real-world challenges such as inequality, nutrition and environmental protection, with a view to enabling companies and policymakers to play a catalytic role in building a sustainable economy.

You have mentioned a need for “transformational leadership” in addressing challenges in sustainability, could you elaborate on what sort of qualities that type of leadership should strive to imbue?

It is clear to me that the same type of thinking and the same type of leadership that got us where we are today, will not get us where we need to be. Many existing leadership models and approaches focus on the individual and their immediate organisational context, but they often fail to take into account the wider context of the urgent global challenges faced by society. This wider context and how to engage with it as a leader, has been the focus of our work.

Acts of leadership can happen at all levels and it’s not just about leadership from the top

In 2017, we published our model for ‘high impact’ leadership, to draw together all we had learned over three decades developing leadership for sustainability. In the model, we outline a number of capabilities required to lead systems change, across the domains of knowledge, values and practice. All three are required, as action without knowledge is likely to be insufficient or misplaced. For example, action to tackle plastic waste caused by plastic straws is well intentioned, but fails to address more fundamental questions and material impacts of our dependence on plastics in modern life. The values that inform leadership decisions are also critically important, as businesses are increasingly operating in contexts of growing inequality, in which concepts of ‘fairness’ and the boundaries of corporate responsibility are contested. But one thing that we are clear on is that this isn’t a job for the heroic few. Instead, we should develop collective leadership capacity, both within and across organisations. Acts of leadership can happen at all levels and it’s not just about leadership from the top – although the CEO does have an outsized role to play. The critical thing we emphasise in our leadership development work – with both companies and individuals – is that it is no longer simply enough to anticipate the future. Leaders need to take an active role in shaping a desirable future. Just as importantly, they need to be accountable for their impact and for the progress they have or have not made in real terms. This requires an understanding of what is truly necessary, not simply what is currently possible or convenient. This is the leadership we need.

Are you optimistic about the future of corporate leadership with regards to sustainability?

All the science indicates that we have set in motion a potentially existential threat to our societies and economies in the form of climate change and our impact on the natural world more widely. But it’s almost too easy to offer a doom and gloom story with no positive end in sight. It is entirely down to us and it is within our capability to do what needs to be done. Amazing things have been achieved and can be achieved in the face of such threats, by acts of leadership and courage and determination. In the change that we need, companies have a critical role to play, but they cannot do it alone. Ultimately, we will need to see a greater shared sense of responsibility for this change, with each party playing their own distinctive role. Governments need to set the rules of the game to create the conditions in which capital will flow in the right direction; companies need to create value across more than just the financial domain; and citizens can shape the political space in which progress can be made.

You have worked closely with His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales for 30 years. I understand he was driving a force behind the formation of CISL. How is it to work with a future King?

The Prince of Wales was far ahead of his time in his understanding of the problems we face because of the way we live on this planet and he has devoted his life to trying to address this. In my own way, I share that ambition. His leadership has been inspirational to me and his patronage of my institute has been fundamental to our success.

You have been appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, can you explain why you were honoured and what it means to you?

I was recognised by the UK government for the work that my institute has done to address the challenges of sustainability. I have had the good fortune to lead the work of an amazing team of people who share the passion to achieve a more sustainable economy. I must admit that never in my wildest dreams, all those years ago on the slopes of Table Mountain, did I imagine I would be working for one of the world’s greatest Universities, under the patronage of the future King of England, on the most important questions that we face as society – or that I would be made a Dame in the process.

About Sustainable Heroes

Join us on a journey into the hearts and minds of some of today’s greatest heroes, who have dedicated themselves to positively impact tomorrow’s world. We invite you to explore with us what makes these heroes tick, what drives them to overcome arduous trials and immense challenges, known and unknown. In this issue, we pay homage to global leaders accelerating the sustainable transformation – all of whom share the goal of fighting climate change and creating a sustainable world that is more resilient and lower carbon intensive. We encourage you on your own quest for ways to innovate, embrace sustainability and do the right thing. Become a heroine or hero to others and help us together solve the problems threatening our very survival. To each of you heroes and heroines, there is a brighter, more sustainable future that we can build together for future generations. We welcome nominations for people you’d like to see featured in future editions. Please send your nominations and other comments to

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