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Take action now to safeguard your own sustainability

Published 27 September 2021 in Magazine • 4 min read

Awareness, acceptance and action – these are the three vital steps needed to make sure that you can perform at your optimum.


Think of sustainability and what comes to mind? For most of us, it’s global warming, preserving ecosystems, or protecting natural resources. How often do we think of personal sustainability or our sustainability as a leader? Not enough, generally. It is especially important for leaders to reflect not only on externals, involving the planet, but also about themselves and their followers.  

What is personal sustainability? It means meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to thrive, which we pass on through our legacy. Resilience and inspiration are essential components. Yes, we can develop those skills, this is a talent rather than an innate characteristic or trait. 

Understanding yourself and being more aware of your needs and surroundings are crucial to fostering sustainable leadership and avoiding mental and physical deterioration. When the Olympic gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from several events at the Tokyo Games, some carped. But others praised her honesty and courage in recognizing her boundaries and needs. 

Simone Biles JO
Olympic gymnast Simone Biles

Sustainable performance is often ill-defined or even misunderstood. A major component is individual resilience and the ability to recover quickly from failures and losses. The biggest challenge to both is change – itself constant and inevitable. Awareness, acceptance and action are key parts of addressing change constructively.  

We all know people who have experienced loss, “never got over it” and suffer serious consequences of illness, burnout or even premature death as a result – hardly good examples of sustainability. On the other hand, there are also many cases of people who have overcome unimaginable losses and recovered their inspiration and joie de vivre. Dr Edith Eger, the American psychologist, Auschwitz survivor and leadership mentor, has written extensively about these themes, in her bestselling memoirs. 

Remember that acceptance is not the same as resignation. As Eger puts it: “We all have a story, but I refuse to be my story. I was victimized, but I am not a victim.” It is essential to retain your sense of personal power.  

Research shows resilience, and the ability to recover fully, can be maintained and reinforced based on four practical pillars of wellbeing: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.  

The first is relatively straightforward and can be addressed largely by staying fit through exercise, diet and adequate sleep. The others present different challenges, touching on issues of personality and belief. Emotional awareness encompasses shame, guilt, anger, depression and fear as well as, by contrast, joyfulness. Sustainability also embraces broader themes, such as finding positivity in mindset and achieving work-life balance. Spiritual sustainability involves finding the purpose, meaning and trust in your life.  

We all have a story, but I refuse to be my story. I was victimized, but I am not a victim.

What can be done to develop such attributes? Developing resilience and wellbeing involves more than simply the accumulation of money and things. Throughout life we are redefining what matters to us, including how we serve family, community and the broader world. 

Personal and work setbacks during the current pandemic have highlighted more than ever how important it is to focus on the present. The past is written in stone and can’t be changed. What can be changed, however, is how we think about our past, especially the lessons learned. Gratitude is important too: remembering what we have, rather than regretting what we don’t.  

Constant learning is an important way to remain motivated, inspired and engaged. New discoveries can help people find greater meaning and purpose in life. And learning should include pursuits that are not necessarily comfortable.  

Absorb these lessons, and the chances are you’ll boost your sustainability, resilience and leadership ability. The great gift of life is to be alive and to protect life for future generations. How much time do you place on your personal sustainability?


george kohreiser

George Kohlrieser

Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD and Director of the High Performance Leadership program. He serves as a consultant to several global companies including Accenture, Amer Sports, Borealis, Cisco, Coca-Cola, HP, Hitachi, IBM, IFC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Morgan Stanley, Motorola, NASA, Navis, Nestlé, Nokia, Pictet, Rio Tinto, Roche, Santander, Swarovski, Sara Lee, Tetra Pak, Toyota, and UBS.


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