On Motivation, Active Hope and Sustainability Leadership: A Master's Dissertation Reflection

Updated: Apr 28

This blog post shares some findings from my Masters dissertation on "Developing a Framework for Understanding the Personal Motivations of Sustainability Leaders (in the Philippines)". I did this as part of my MSc Sustainable Development degree from the University of Surrey's Centre for Environment & Sustainability, as a Chevening scholar of the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

You may also read this peer-reviewed journal article of my research in the Journal of Management for Global Sustainability published in December 2020.

To carry on with work in environmental advocacy (or anything that takes some time to see through) is to engage in an act of “daily reckoning”, as one of my interviewees would say. While I don't consider myself a "sustainability leader" like some of the individuals I interviewed, I do work on environmental advocacy through MUNI, and I wondered how some of the people I admired in the space managed to be so driven and resilient. And this could be relevant to anyone, whether or not one considers his or herself as a "leader" or aspires to be one. To simply act in the interest of people and the planet, and influence others to do so too is an act of leadership.

Motivation Triggers Action

I understood that sustainability leadership development needs more than new knowledge and skills: it needs an underlying motivation to act, in order for the knowledge and skills to be utilised (Haney et al., 2018). We can equip people with all the facts and data, but unless we motivate them to act, this knowledge may be for naught. And so, I endeavored to explore the initial and sustaining motivations that drive leaders to pursue sustainability as a profession or vocation. I conducted interviews with 16 sustainability leaders in the Philippines working in sectors ranging from corporate, social enterprise, NGO and academia.

My analysis of the data revealed significant life experiences that drive initial motivation, how feedback sustains motivation, and the importance of self-awareness and positive psychological factors in starting and sustaining their work or advocacy. With the encouragement of my supervisor, I also developed framework for understanding motivations, which I felt seemed a bit audacious for me to suggest. The framework is simply a way of looking at things, of making sense of my data, and connecting it with research on Value-Belief-Norm Theory (Stern, 1999) and Authentic Leadership theory (Walumba et al., 2008).

In the end, I suggest ways motivation can be instigated and sustained by:

• Nurturing hope and other positive psychological factors; • Integrating experiential learning to develop awareness, connectedness and empathy; • Creating social support and enabling environments

I've always believed that the purpose of academic research is to be shared and applied. I hope that you pick up some useful lessons on developing more sustainability leaders through the findings of my research.

A Framework for Understanding Initial and Sustaining Motivations of Sustainability Leaders

I tried to illustrate the journey I went on in learning about sustainability leadership motivation through the framework below, which borrow a lot of elements from the Value-Belief-Norm Theory (VBN; Stern, 1999).

The modifications I made to VBN are those in grass green, which I try to explain not-too-academically below. :P

A. Experiences

More than just their existing values, interviewees consistently reported how experiences would shape or reshape their beliefs including their awareness of the world around them, and their own capabilities, interests and responsibilities. A common theme was their personal insight from:

  • Exposure to the consequences of unsustainable behaviour (related to social injustice, e.g. poverty, indigenous people’s rights, victims of calamities, etc. or the destruction of nature (e.g. trash along the coast, growing landfills, flooding, etc.)

  • Exposure to the positive feelings and opportunities associated with sustainable behaviour (such as positive role models whether individuals persons or organisations, or connectedness with nature, such as when spending time outdoors or with wildlife, or learning about the natural world through school or media, e.g. reading or watching National Geographic, going to a science high school, etc.).

Powerful experiences would serve to create epiphanies (e.g. in the case of calamities, immersive experiences like a coastal clean-up, or reading a particularly influential book), while other experiences gradually shaped their beliefs through prolonged experience (e.g. having poor children as playmates, being exposed to parents’ sustainable behaviours, environmental education, values-based education, religion, becoming more connected with nature through time spent outdoors, etc.). This was validated by studies by Schein (2015) and Rimanoczy (2013).

B. Awareness of Opportunities

Finding opportunities (like new business ideas, community networks, partnerships, funding or grant competitions) served to motivate some interviewees, whether they were from the business sector or the development sector. In other words, knowing the potential areas they can effect change, along with the strategies they can use to reach their goals helped motivate them. This happens by increasing their feelings of self-efficacy, the feeling that they're capable of doing something, and their waypower, the knowledge of ways to move forward, which enhanced their hope and optimism.

C. Positive Psychological Factors

Positive psychological factors such as confidence, hope, optimism (Walumba et al., 2008) helped interviewees get into the field of sustainability, in spite of the challenges from the outset, and the growing pains. This gave them an empowered mind-set that allowed them to take it into their own hands to try to effect positive change. This influenced both initial and sustaining motivations, and helped interviewees set greater goals, have greater commitment, and work harder to lead others towards sustainability.

D. Self-awareness and Self-interest

The more congruent or aligned sustainability leaders felt with their own values, strengths, interests and goals, the more motivated and committed they were to pursue sustainability leadership. Furthermore, both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, ranging from joy in the work itself to the need to make money to support one’s self and one’s family, played a role in shaping their beliefs about the advantages of continuing in their work. This played a role in both initial and sustained motivation, but their awareness and interests may change as they engage more deeply in the work.

* Beliefs stated in B, C, and D interact and influence one another. It is not a static or linear interaction between these beliefs.

E. Feedback

Validation or feedback was an important contributor to sustained motivation, as this helped shape their beliefs about how they work, how the world works, and what works and what doesn’t. For example, it was rewarding for them when they saw beneficiaries being able to send their children to school, and whenever they receive gratitude from employees or community members for the work they do. This helped validate their need for identity, or the sense of accomplishment validated their need for creation and participation (Max-neef et al., 1991), and a feeling of relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Conversely, feedback could also come in the form of barriers, which contributes to their learning and insight about how the world works or the extent of their personal capacity. Taken constructively, barriers left leaders with more awareness and understanding on how to better proceed with the work they do when they try again next time.

F. Social and Environmental Transformation

Motivation has been said to be a goal-directed behaviour (Schunk et al., 2008). And for hope to exist, it requires an end goal (Luthans & Avolio, 2003). One common thread among my interviewees was their desire to create change beyond their personal sphere, and empower those that they influence (followers, employees, customers, etc.) to effect change in their own way as well. Although they vary in the scale or level of their ambition (organisational, community, national or global scale change) and clarity (having specific, detailed and measurable goals in the next 1, 5 and 10 years), ultimately, they were guided by a desire to change the world for the better.

Implications for Sustainability Leadership Development

There needs to be an underlying motivation to act, in order for the knowledge and skills to be utilised from sustainability leadership development programmes. From these results, I concluded the importance of creating programmes that enhance individuals’ positive psychology capacities, utilise experiential learning, and highlight community-building and connectedness to nature. All this must be done while showing them how to set their own short and long-term goals so that they can celebrate milestones or small wins on the way towards a greater goal of social and environmental transformation. This is by no means an easy feat, but a necessary one to consider. This may be done through the below strategies.

I. Nurture Hope

Good news! Hope is a muscle that can be strengthened. Leaders can nurture hope in their followers by modelling hopeful thinking (proactive hope as opposed to wishful thinking), and by giving their followers stronger WHYs (motivation) and WAYs (ways forward). This can be done by training people in appropriate goal-setting and envisioning realistic pathways, breaking down big goals into sub-goals, delegation and empowering others, contingency-planning, positive self-talk, re-framing and readjusting goals when faced with barriers, and having someone believe in you, whether through peer support groups or coaching (Rego et al., 2014; Luthans & Youssef, 2004).

II. Experiential Learning

There are things you cannot teach inside a classroom. Some of the most critical turning points of sustainability leaders in this study came from the awareness of consequences and opportunities that came through first-hand experience that helped develop their empathy. The Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (2007) also recommends that leadership development programmes should integrate experiential learning, placements or immersions for key functions and for all levels within the business, including the board. Furthermore, the importance of reflecting upon the experience and applying the learning accordingly must be stressed. By making the issues more personal for individuals, this helped create an underlying motivation to make them more committed and empowered to act in favour of sustainability (Haney et al., 2018; Arden, 2019).

III. Social support / enabling environments

With MUNI, we would always stress the importance of community, and that was validated by the interviews I conducted. To sustain motivation, it was important for interviewees to have a reasonable expectation for success (because they're in an environment that enables that), and a support system from which they could gain not only technical knowledge, but more importantly, a source of emotional strength and empathy. Community or peer learning groups, getting executive buy-in by involving the board in sustainability leadership programmes, and coaching are measures to integrate in sustainability education and sustainability leadership programmes.

A Reflection on My Dissertation

Having taken my studies in the UK, I took myself out of the MUNI community I was embedded in the Philippines, and I found it challenging to find community in the UK. I missed hosting our MUNI Meetups, attending other people's events, and simply being so much closer to the things happening in the Philippines. I felt removed and distant and I wondered if I had tread the right path. Furthermore, I had self-imposed stress on what to do for my dissertation, feeling like I had to create something groundbreaking or revolutionary. I had so many different things I wanted to explore, but nothing I thought was really meaningful. In the end, I wound up pursuing a topic that turned out to be what I needed the most at the time.

The conversations I had with my interviewees allowed me to feel more connected to community again. Their motivation inspired me. I only wished I could share some of the highlights of my interviews I had with them. And I blame / credit those interviews (and Alex Blumberg, and just me feeling too old to run as many events as before) for the conception of the MUNI on This Podcast, which I feel is like an extension of the journey I went on for my dissertation. Now, I hope to apply these lessons to our podcast and events, as well as in my work as a lecturer on sustainability at Ateneo de Manila University, and develop more sustainability leaders among MUNI's community members and among my students.

The great thing is that you don't necessarily have to be in the education or people / leadership development spaces to apply these lessons. We can apply these lessons as a boss / colleague / employee, as a parent / child, or as a friend, when we're trying to influence others to live more sustainably too. We need to show them why they ought to care, and how they can act accordingly. We need to help them experience the benefits of sustainable behaviour. And we need to show our support for them should they choose to go on this journey.

My research may not be revolutionary, but it was just what I needed at that time. It has set me on a path to constantly learn about people's motivation (and resilience) in this field, and to constantly try to give myself and others more reasons to hope, and more motivation to act.


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  • Avolio, B. J., & Gardner, W. L. (2005). Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. Leadership Quarterly, 16, 315-338.

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