A New Psychology for Sustainability Leadership

Posted on September 12, 2015 by Mary Hernandez

Exploring themes in the personal development of sustainability leaders
A book review by Mary A. Hernandez


A New Psychology of Sustainability Leadership:  The Hidden Power of Ecological Worldviews

by Steven Schein 2015 Greenleaf Publishing

Steven Shein is both a professor and a highly experienced entrepreneur with a Ph.D. in human development and organization systems.  Drawing on his own experiences with nature and his companionship with others who are likewise nature-oriented, his personal stories of communion and revelation in nature draws us into his own motivation to becoming curious about other leaders equally concerned about the environmental crisis.  His interests are inclusive and extend to eastern, aboriginal, and depth psychologies.  The author’s educational and occupational backgrounds and interests position him well to make recommendations related to the topics presented in the book.

In the tradition of positive deviance, Dr. Schein explores the factors which influenced the development of ecological worldviews held by corporate sustainability leaders.  Using transcripts from interviews with these leaders, he gleaned certain themes in their narratives which affect their motivation to act in sustainable ways.  He contends that their earth-friendly motivation is reflected through an ecological worldview inimical to the formation of environmentally harmful behaviours.  Dr. Schein presents the benefits of studying the development of ecological worldviews and suggests that examining these worldviews would constitute a “new psychology in sustainable leadership”.  On page 12 he noted that “we need a new story, a new language, and most of all, a new psychology”.  While the rationale for doing such an examination was convincingly presented in Dr. Schein’s study, it is unclear whether studying extant ecological worldviews amounts to a new psychology.  There is clarity, however, in his notion that particular nature-biased experiences throughout a person’s development are more likely to result in ecological worldviews than the contemporary anthropocentric perspective.

Contributes to psychology and to the applied field of leadership

Dr. Schein initially asked why senior corporate executives do not respond with urgency to climate change despite the abundant evidence that our current ways, especially corporate ways, have resulted in this environmental crisis.  He wondered why evidence is not enough to cause behaviour change.  And, instead of searching for reasons behind our anthropocentric stance, as other writers have done, Dr. Schein focused his own inquiry on people who demonstrated nature-connected behaviours despite living in a human-centric milieu.  Specifically, he wanted to know how a nature-inclusive ecological stance arose from the modern environment of consumeristic convenience.  In doing so, Dr. Schein reviewed some academic fields related to this topic, and to worldviews in particular.

The book enlightens the intersection of ecological studies, psychology, and organizational leadership to reveal possible connections that the author found salient to the development of an ecological self.  Dr. Schein purports that corporate leadership needed deeper analyses through the lenses of social service fields which historically have not been reviewed in conjunction with leadership.

Juxtaposed fields such as ecological economics, social psychology, and environmental sociology, among others, were introduced to the reader in a succession that made visible their associations to each other.  These relationships reveal the complexity of ecosystems, the distance created by our unbalanced society; and the resultant gaps in education which perpetuate the problems of imbalance and disconnection.  For example, business school and corporate training do little in terms of acknowledging ecosystems and their importance to entrepreneurial practice.  Even different ecological fields remained separate from each other, thus remaining blind to the benefits of cross pollination.  Dr. Schein noted that this kind of boundary between essentially interdependent topics do not result in sustainable outcomes.

Dr. Schein also acknowledged the tendency for education to operate in silos and, thus, encouraged a change in focus to support an ecologically expanded self-concept (a.k.a. the ecological self).  In this realm, the book delivers very pragmatic exercises for immediate use; exercises which are easy to do and highly adaptable to adult populations because they capitalize on existing activities: “Eco-literacy”, “reflective journaling” and “eco-biography”, for example, are exercises already popular amongst educators.  Their use would, therefore, not require much adjustment for the educators or students.

Another strength of this book is its incorporation of measurements, knowing how the current world values this ‘scientific’ type of verification.  Speaking in measurement ‘language’ by using a validated test like the “New Ecological Paradigm Survey” (NEP) allows easier introduction of eco-centric information into psyches already enamoured with science.  In alignment with the author’s experiences at becoming ecologically aware, using these measures may allow people to develop an attention to anthropocentrism and its extent in their lives, the limitations of science, and their own participation or non-participation in sustainability measures.  Awareness through measurement can help people accept their reality in relation to the earth.

Dr. Schein is clearly realistic as well.  He communicates the understanding that the right political and governmental contexts must envelope this new paradigm for success to occur, and that changing political temperaments can result in changed realities.  His grounded perspective is demonstrated by his admission of personally experiencing “sustainability fatigue” which he feared may become the experience of his students too.  He explained that his students were enthusiastic during class but he wondered whether they would fare well when faced with external resistance — the kind of historical resistance ubiquitous to modern culture.  One can not help but understand the concern he brought forth.

It is this kind of personal concern and honesty that allows the book to be read as more than a treatise; this is a personal journey of how heart-achingly difficult it is to change the predominant culture, especially in business.  Dr. Schein supposed that “most corporate executives and business educators not directly involved with sustainability have not felt a sense of their ecological selves”, and one good example is the lack of traction in the business world for Joanna Macy’s transformational workshop on the ecological self.  That is why in his own practice, Dr. Schein brought ecological awareness to education when he became a teacher at a business school.

Dr. Schein recollects the development of his ecological self with feeling and authenticity.  His narrative of being in nature, partaking in aboriginal practices, and walking in his own epiphanies imbued this non-fictional work with an atmosphere that speaks beyond cognition, and towards emotion.  He gives a sense of being reborn within these paragraphs; opening his eyes and wondering for the first time.  He is also candid about his learning experiences and does not hold out as an expert by giving credit to influential others.  All of these were couched in approachable language that humanizes sustainability leaders and helps us develop an empathy — or at least an understanding — of their perspectives.  Dr. Schein makes the lessons come alive with true examples of individual change through the interviewees’ own words.

The author used excerpted paragraphs from transcripts.  Those paragraphs reveal certain conditions that help sustainability leaders maintain their ecological selves.  According to Dr. Schein, the first is an “awareness of ecological embeddedness” or feeling oneself as part of nature.  Second is an “awareness of the vulnerability of planetary ecosystems”, typified by behaviours that help to reduce environmental impact.  Third is “a belief in the intrinsic value of nature”, such as giving due value to nature as a sentient organism.  Fourth is an “enhanced systems consciousness” and, last, is “planet-centric circles of identity and care”.  These conditions take a long time to be realized; one interviewee described it as, “phases of understanding over a long period of years”.

This period of needed ‘maturation’ is the reason why this book is important.  By bringing to light the themes and conditions distilled from the interviews, Dr. Schein helps educators and trainers begin the process of integrating nature-friendly material into lesson plans faster.  Considering that natural experiences during childhood has been associated with the development of an ecological worldview, this work could be made more influential if discussed in parenting classes.  However, does this potential mean that a new psychology was born?  Not yet.

Working towards a new psychology

At this stage, it is not clear that a new psychology has been demonstrated.  Dr. Schein himself states that this publication is meant to initiate dialogue; to be a catalyst in the discussion that may eventually become a new psychology.  The intent is to start the process of conducting formal research into the aspects which comprise the creation of an ecological worldview.  He noted, “new conversations and new research which will ultimately lead to a new kind of psychology for the benefit of all life on earth”, and “I propose… we need to develop a new type of shared language… through a new psychology for sustainable leadership” (p 150).  Dr. Schein believes that there are enough recurring themes present in his interviews and communications with sustainability leaders to warrant further investigation.

There are also outstanding questions stemming from the possibility of interpreting data in different ways.  For example:  How do we know that other more ‘capitalistic’ leaders did not have the same early experiences in nature as the sustainability leaders did?  Did something change the latter’s trajectory or were they never on the same trail as other leaders?  Do these groups share other commonalities?  In the development of ecological worldviews, articles have been written about “green personality”, “environmental consciousness”, and “systemic leadership”.  Perhaps the author could append observations and literature reviews from these areas to look for similarities and contrasts with his findings.  Another angle is related to corporations.  One, in particular, stands out.  Are corporations the appropriate vehicle to do the work of changing the environmental situation?  Especially when Dr. Schein himself noted that corporate leadership culture remain largely unchanged notwithstanding the evidence on environmental crises.  Perhaps corporations and corporate culture could be examined further in succeeding works.


The structure of the book bears logical progression.  Content is presented in four parts:  a) an introduction to his objectives and a summary of the present ecological climate, b) short introductions of various related social and psychological fields, c) the presentation of themes and excerpted data from the interview transcripts regarding relevant experiences and skills, and d) suggested exercises and actions to develop the same skills and characteristics in students and in the workforce.  The table of contents exhibits the flow of sections from general to specific, and the book is written well.

How might the flow of detail become even more effective?  Might it be beneficial to include a summary page as an organizer in the beginning?  In the experience of reading this book, some of the main proposals appeared later.  If these proposals appeared near the front, a reader would have advance notice of how other sections funnel to substantiate the author’s main points, which are:

  • “There has been no large scale empirical studies of corporate sustainability leaders based on the construct of the ecological self.” (p 82)
  • “The central proposition of this book is that the extent to which we think ecologically ultimately drives the depth and effectiveness of our action towards sustainability” (p 163)
  • “the research in this book… suggests that many of the most influential sustainability executives are motivated by their ecological worldviews” (p 169)
  • there is a sequence to the development of ecological worldviews (p 154)

The different academic fields summarized by the author may become confusing without an advance organizer.  Dr. Schein could only ‘touch’ upon the subjects and did not discuss them in-depth in substantiation of the need that is being impressed upon us by his main propositions.  This is a relatively small point because, despite this, Dr. Schein succeeded in showing the multi-dimensional character of ecology and the great need for integration.  He could start by presenting his data first along with the limitations of the study.  The data can then be analyzed and substantiated against the literature reviews of the various social service fields.

In presenting an outline of aspects in the development of an ecological worldview, eco-psychology and eco-therapy has a place.  Dr. Schein concurs in this book, stating that these fields should be part of the foundation for sustainability leadership.  It is, thus, suggested that experiential exercises be part of the list of recommendations by the author, to catalyze ‘connecting with nature’.  Incorporating more sensory education would strengthen the power to engender trust in one’s self and in the resources given by nature to humans, as well as extending such trust to other natural beings.


This material is practical reading for a variety of people who are interested in sustainability and leadership in general, and for those curious about factors which influence the development of values conducive to sustainability.  Educators and personal-growth seekers would also be interested in this book due to its suggestions for educational and reflective exercises.

This work is admirable in many ways.  Dr. Schein sought the motivations and the worldview that underpinned sustainable behaviour in people who have high corporate positions.  He saw certain themes, aspects that nurtured these leaders’ nature-loving motivation.  His informal study reinforced the need for field and educational integration to foster an ecological mindset.  He validated the complexity of this subject and the necessity for pragmatic education and measurement.

What Others Are Saying

  1. Spencer Spratley May 4, 2016 at 2:21 pm

    A well-written and informative review. The world would definitely benefit if more corporate leaders adopted an ecological mindset.

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